Green Hills Literary Lantern

Hoosier Boys

 

 

                 My father was a real piece of work.  I hadn’t heard from him in six years; then, when he finally did call, he only breezed over the necessary questions: How’s everything going?  You still at that job?

            Then he said, “Russell, you ever think about getting into coaching?”  I didn’t have time to answer before he continued.  “What I mean to say is, we’ve got an opening on our staff, and I thought maybe you’d be interested.”

            I stifled a laugh and wondered if this was actually Smurf on the line.  He was the only person I still talked to who knew my father.  I wanted to ask how he learned to do such a good impersonation, but there was a cough on the other end, the cough of an old man who had spent too much time yelling at referees for the past thirty years.

            “You’d have to teach a few classes, too,” my father said.  “We could get you a few P.E. classes, maybe an English class or two in the spring.  That’s what you studied, right?” 

            “Yeah,” I said.  “I mean, yeah, that’s what I studied, but I don’t know about coaching.”  Or about even seeing my father again, or going back to Terre Haute; it had been fifteen years since I’d done either, and it was hard to imagine going back again, especially on such short notice.  But then I thought that might be the only way to ever do it—that with any more time, I’d find a million different ways to talk myself out of returning, even just to visit.

            I hesitated, and there was silence on my father’s end, too.  I wondered what he was thinking, if he had even considered how uncomfortable it might be for me—not just to go back for this job, but to simply talk to him again after all this time.  “You should come out for a couple days,” he said.  “Talk about the job.  I’ll show you around the new gym.”

            “I’ve got a job,” I said.  It was true, and he knew it from the little message I’d written him in the last Christmas card I’d sent.  But it was a job working in the P.R.  department at Del Monte Foods in Pittsburgh that I’d grown weary of after less than a year.  After college, I’d spent eight years playing professional basketball in Europe, skipping around from team to team, country to country—all exotic, intoxicating cities, especially after growing up in Indiana.  But I was tired out from that lifestyle, thought a quiet desk job would be easy.  Instead, it felt like a soul-sucking drag, and I missed the sense of purpose I derived from playing basketball—the game-to-game goals of trying to win, trying to outscore the man I was guarding.  It had gotten to the point where I’d started to wonder what other options might be available: starting a restaurant, opening a fitness center, or even getting into coaching.  I wouldn’t admit it to my father, but I’d gone so far as to call my old college coach at St. Joseph’s a few weeks before to ask what he thought about coaching.  He was nice about it, said he could put in calls for me, but not in August; everyone’s staff would be filled out until the spring.

            The same rule applied at the high school level, as far as I knew, especially considering the teaching requirements.  It made me wonder why my father was calling about this now—made me feel like maybe I was nothing more than a desperation choice for him.  But then he said, “What the hell, take a couple days off—whaddya have to lose?”  I didn’t have the courage to say anything to him at that moment; what he said made too much sense.  So I told him okay, I would come.

            My father cleared his throat and paused.  “You can stay here, you know.  Bedroom ain’t exactly the same, but . . .” his voice trailed off and he chuckled.

            “We’ll see,” I told him, suddenly feeling a rush of panic.  Going back to my old house (I knew from the Christmas cards my father sent that he’d never moved, nor remarried) was a bit much; it made everything suddenly seem too real.  The fall after I’d left for college in Philly, my mother filed for divorce and moved with my younger sister to Ohio.  “I’ll call tomorrow on my way,” I said, and we exchanged a couple quick goodbyes.  Going back to Terre Haute and staying in my old house didn’t seem possible.  I had distanced myself too far from that part of my life, both physically and mentally.

 

I’d known all throughout high school that I’d wanted to get away, to see a different part of the country.  But I was offered a full-ride basketball scholarship to Indiana State—my hometown college, and my father’s alma mater.  None of those things mattered to me, though, not even the fact that Larry Bird had played there less than a decade before and that I, like him, was supposed to be the sweet-shooting star to bring the program back to prominence.  I knew I was no Larry Bird, and I didn’t want those expectations.

I waited as long as I could before signing to play for St. Joe’s instead.  I knew how it would break my father’s heart, hoped he would understand.  At first, I thought he did.  I announced my decision after practice, over dinner, and when I finally gathered the courage to look at him, he sat there chewing a stick of asparagus, staring down at his plate, nodding.

The next day at practice, though, he gathered the team together and talked about how he wanted to implement a different strategy for the season.  He said that relying on an outside shooter—me—to carry a team deep into the post-season wasn’t a sound strategy.  Instead, we would work the ball into the post as often as possible to our two big men—a couple of unaccomplished, uncoordinated juniors—and it would be the job of the outside shooters to get open for when the big men had to be bailed out.  It seemed like a very calculated way of sabotaging the season, my senior year.  The year before we’d made it to the state tourney, just two wins from the title game, and were expected to be even better after that experience.

That season turned out to be an utter disaster, as far as I was concerned.  My numbers plummeted and I went crazy at first, losing games we should have won because I didn’t have the ball in my hands often enough.  I yelled at my father almost nightly at first, blaming him for everything, for ruining my teenage life, but he just shook it off, told me I didn’t understand.  We made it to the tourney again but flamed out in the first round, and people around the city said they were glad I wasn’t going to Indiana State, that I wouldn’t be able to carry that team very far, either.

 

Thinking about all of this left me feeling like an idiot for even entertaining my father’s offer to return to coach under him.  Later that afternoon, I called Smurf, who still lived in Terre Haute.  He had understood my frustration during our senior year; he was the point guard, and wanted to disobey my father, but worried that then he’d be benched. 

“You’re not crazy to want this job,” he said.  “You’d be his first assistant, and how long does he have left?  A few years.  Then you take over the team.”

But then he told me the news I didn’t want to hear: that this was, indeed, a move of desperation on the part of my father.  The news had just come out that our old teammate, Neal Hollings—the assistant coach in question—had “accidentally” wandered into the locker room over the course of the year to sneak peeks at some of the girls basketball players.  It wasn’t revealed until late in the year, though, because the main accuser had a basketball scholarship to Southwest Missouri State and didn’t want to risk losing it.  So it wasn’t until the end of August that Hollings was fired, leaving my father in a tricky situation.

Smurf and I had barely known Hollings; we’d only played one year with him, and back then he was just this aloof, long-haired kid who liked to pump himself up before games by sitting in his truck and blasting Quiet Riot’s “Cum on Feel the Noize.”  He must have had some real issues, though, to throw away what seemed like a bright future, coaching and teaching at Jefferson, for a few peeks at girls.  Still, Smurf defended Hollings, said people jumped to conclusions too quickly, that he hadn’t really done anything that bad.

I didn’t know what Smurf was thinking, but wasn’t about to get into an argument with him.  Fortunately he turned the conversation back to my visit, told me that I was welcome to stay at his place.  I said sure, I’d be happy to—relieved to have an option other than my father’s place or a hotel—and he seemed to be jumping through the phone with excitement, talking about how it would be just like the old days, sleeping over and talking basketball all night.  He acted, too, like it was a foregone conclusion that I’d end up back in Terre Haute and we’d be best friends once again.  It didn’t seem likely, but then again, it hadn’t seemed likely that my father would have called me out of the blue that morning, either.

 

The following morning I phoned into work, told them I had to go home to Indiana for a family emergency.  Then I was on the road for the nine-hour drive, my conscience clear: it felt not like a lie, but a legitimate excuse, having not seen my father in so long.

I found my way back to Smurf’s place easily, hardly needing to consult the directions.  It had been a long time, but hardly anything about Terre Haute had changed.  If anything, there were a handful of new fast-food restaurants, a few new strip malls; the city was still its same old boring self.

Smurf was standing at the door, waiting for me when I arrived.  I had called him from my cell phone an hour before, told him to be expecting me.  Still, it was funny to see him, his nose pressed against the screen door, just like when we were kids.  He grabbed me in a bear hug as best he could—he was small for a basketball player, only about five-eight, too small to receive a scholarship to play for his beloved Indiana Hoosiers, or any Division I school—and slapped me on the back.  He hadn’t changed much, at least physically: his hair was still shaved close to the scalp, his skin smooth and lacking the creases that I’d noticed forming around my eyes and on my forehead in recent years.

“Russell,” Smurf said as he stepped back.  “They fired him.  They fired Bobby.”

He sounded like he was talking about his father.  I knew, though, that he meant Bobby Knight, the man who had coached the Hoosiers since we were children.  The news had been all over the radio, on every news or sports talk station I’d tuned into since passing Cincinnati. 

Smurf moved around me and pulled the suitcase from the trunk of my car.  “It’s not just that he’s a winner,” he moaned.  “Look at everything he’s done for these kids.  Look at the graduation rate.”

“When was the last time they made it to the Final Four?”

Smurf put the suitcase down.  “Ninety-two?”

“There you go,” I said.  “Hell, even Wisconsin made it this year.”  I thought, too, about the reasons Knight had been fired—for being such an asshole to his players, basically, assaulting them verbally and physically at times over the years.  Smurf seemed on the losing end of this argument already, though, and I didn’t need to dig any deeper.  He mumbled something and accidentally swung the suitcase into the screen door.

It had been fifteen years since I’d been in this house.  When Smurf got married and had a kid a few years before, his parents retired and moved across the Wabash to Illinois, to a condo on a golf course in Paris, and gave this place to him and his wife.  I looked around at the changes Smurf had made and told him he’d done well.  The carpet was new, light tan instead of avocado green, and half the furniture looked like it had come from Ikea.  It was interesting to think that Smurf could live in the same house for almost his entire life—never even leaving the city, actually, never really considering moving away.  He could have left, played basketball at the D-III level at a school like Hanover or Dominican.  Instead, he gave up the sport, went to Indiana State and got himself a job as an accountant for Vigo County.

Smurf led me downstairs to the basement.  We had spent countless nights in this room as kids, watching the Pacers on TV, playing Nerf basketball amongst the posters of Isiah Thomas and all the other gods of Indiana hoops.  Now, Smurf opened his arms and unveiled a tremendous collage on one wall, a shrine to his three-year-old daughter, Selena.  Everything, it seemed, was memorialized on that wall, from birthday parties to visits with Santa at the Honey Creek Mall.  I was a little envious—not that Smurf had stayed here, lived what I’d classify as a boring life, but that he had a house, a family, something he could be so proud of.  Living in Europe all those years had been fun, but the longest I’d stayed in one place was two years.  There was a lot of travel, an endless supply of nightlife in most places—the longest I’d been in a relationship was just over a year, which happened during those two years in Madeira. 

I followed Smurf back upstairs and sat down in front of the TV.  He brought out a couple cans of Coors Light.  “It’s something about Hollings, isn’t it?” he said, cracking open both cans.

“Pretty crazy,” I said, looking away.

“I keep thinking, isn’t there something I can do to help?” Smurf said.  “But I never knew him too well.  I’d see him now and then, ask how the team’s doing, talk about old times.  I don’t know.  Maybe if you’re around.”

He left it at that, and I didn’t have anything to say.  It was hard to understand why Smurf cared at all about Hollings.  He had even said he didn’t know him well anymore.  We watched a TV report on the news about Knight’s firing, and a few minutes later Smurf’s wife, Celia, arrived.  Selena was at her side.  She carried a grocery bag filled with hot dogs and buns and ground beef for us to grill, and watching her, I tried not to stare.  I’d only seen her before in pictures, and she was even more attractive in person: small with curvy Cuban hips, green eyes highlighted against her bronzed skin.  Smurf kissed her quickly and introduced us, then picked up his daughter and told her my name, told her to hold out her hand and slap me a high five.  Her little hand smacked against my palm and I thought that no, Smurf may not have lived the most exciting life here in Terre Haute, but he had a lot of things that I could only long for.

 

I left early the next morning to meet with my father at Jefferson High, arrived at the high school with nearly thirty minutes to spare.  Driving around and seeing more of the town that morning, the more it seemed nothing had changed.  There were a few new loft apartment buildings downtown, a couple fancy bars to serve the college students; otherwise, it was mostly the same buildings looking more decayed.  Even the stench from the sewage plant—a smell like rotting fish that you got used to when you lived here—still occasionally wafted across town.

I sat in my car in the parking lot near the gym, pools of sweat forming under my arms.  Basketball was the last thing on my mind, even though I knew that’s what my father would want to talk about.  I wanted him to mention the past, if only to say that that’s all it was—the past—and that this was our chance to move on and enjoy a few last years of a normal father-son relationship.

When I got out of my car and walked closer to the gym, I saw my father waiting at the entrance to the gym.  I could see why he was proud of the place: it was twice the size of the field house I’d played in, with tinted windows lining the upper ring of the building.  My father held out his hand when I stepped near him.  I shook it, but could tell he didn’t want to lean in for a hug.  “My boy’s all grown up,” he said, and the way he said it, I wondered if maybe there was a lump of regret inside him.  I wondered, too, what I looked like in his eyes; I had sent him photos from Europe, but it had been fifteen years since he’d seen me in person.  On the other hand, I hadn’t even seen a photo of my father over all those years, and the change was striking.  His hair, last I’d seen a light shade of brown, was now a stark white, and his face was weathered like an old fence, his jowls hanging low.

“Look at this place,” my father said, showing off the gym as we walked inside.  He spoke of all the money he’d raised for it, how the school had decided to name the court after him.

“Impressive,” I said, wondering if that’s the only kind of legacy my father had really ever cared about.  “Bigger than some of the barns I played in in Turkey or Cyprus.”

My father laughed.  “I don’t know if it would have been possible if it wasn’t for you,” he said, his gray eyes lighting and catching mine.

“What do you mean?” I said, probably sounding too surly.

“You don’t hit that shot against Vigo in eighty-four, we don’t win the section, don’t go to the state tourney.  I know the next year was tough, but getting to the state semis was a big deal.  Woke up a lot of boosters, got people wanting to support this program again.”

It was exciting, almost embarrassing to hear these things, especially from my father.  People at work loved to ask about my career in Europe, and I told them about playing in cities like Barcelona and Istanbul with a few washed-up NBA players.  But I wasn’t a big shot over there; I made some decent money, almost a hundred thousand a year, and enjoyed myself.  I was a role-player, though, sometimes coming off the bench, hardly ever getting a big shot at crunch time.  Nobody asked me about those times in Indiana, times when I actually had heroics to speak of.  I looked around my father’s gym, from the shiny hardwood floors to the huge, electronic scoreboard perched in the northeast corner.  It was easy to imagine people crowding the bleachers, high school boys and girls running up and down the court, sweat dripping from their faces as they pushed back their hair.  And it wasn’t hard to imagine myself coaching these kids, calmly urging them on from the sidelines.

I followed my father through a set of double-doors and down a corridor to his office.  He had always been like Bobby Knight, a hard-ass coach with a raging temper, but it was hard to see him like that now.  The way he labored just pulling up a chair for me in his office, I couldn’t picture him roaming the sidelines, screaming curses at his players and officials for ninety minutes.

He talked for a while about the position, the same things he’d said on the phone two days before, never once mentioning the Hollings situation.  Then he turned the talk to coaching—still not bringing up our relationship, or lack thereof—and asked what my philosophy was.

“Always defer to the head coach,” I said.  That drew a smile, and I went on, opening up about how I’d like to run a team, discussing the up-and-down, motion-style offense I’d grown to love in Europe.

“Euros aren’t exactly known for their defense,” my father said, scowling a bit.

I told him that you can have it both ways, that you wouldn’t have to compromise on one end just to succeed on the other.  “A high-scoring game isn’t always a sign of bad defense.  It’s just a sign of more possessions for both teams.  If you play pressure defense and keep the other team’s field goal percentage down—”

“And rebound—”

“And rebound,” I said, “then you’re going to win a lot of games.”

My father nodded, seemed to be enjoying this discussion.  It was funny, but even after all those years, after all that antipathy toward him, it was exciting to feel like I’d impressed him with this talk.  He went on speaking about the position, the things they’d have to do to get me an emergency teaching permit.  I leaned back in my chair and we sat quietly for a minute.  A group of boys walked down the hallway outside his office, the echoes of their laughs filling up empty space.  My father stumbled over his words, speaking with certainty that I’d take the job, move back on a whim and bail him out.

“I think this is a great chance for you, Russell,” he said.  “I’m really trying to help you out here.”

I tried not to laugh.  “I know about Hollings,” I said, my voice cracking.  I’d always been nervous talking back to my father, and it wasn’t any different after fifteen years; if anything, it was harder, since I was so out of practice.  “You think I can just come back here, forget everything?”  I stared into his face and imagined myself in thirty years, sitting in that same seat, lonely as my father with nothing to hold on to but this game.

My father stood up shakily, and I saw some of that old rage build up in his eyes.  “You could never appreciate the opportunities I gave you,” he said.  “Nothing’s changed.  Still too good for this town.”  He snorted, turned away.  “Get out.  I don’t know why I even bothered.”

I picked up my briefcase and walked out of the office, out of the gym.  It was lunchtime and students filled the sidewalks.  I looked at them, at their pimply faces and greasy hair and ugly piercings, and wanted so badly to teach them and coach them—to be able to fill some kind of void in their lives, like the one my father had left in mine.

 

It was early enough in the day to leave, to drive back to Pittsburgh and get in before midnight.  But I’d already asked for the next day off, thought Smurf would enjoy spending a little time together, and remembered the golf clubs in my trunk.  I called Smurf at work, asked if he could get the afternoon off to play a round.  He grew quiet and his voice sounded sad.  “I don’t think I can,” he said.  “I wish.  How did it go with your dad?”

I told him we could talk about it later.  We made plans to go to dinner after he got off work, and I drove to the Hulman Links course myself, trying to put the talk with my father out of my mind.  By the time I got back to his place, Smurf was already home.  “Your father really grilled you, huh?” he said.  I was confused for a second, and then realized he was joking.  My arms and face were a deep shade of pink; I’d forgotten my sunscreen.

Later, while we drove along Highway 41 to an old brick brewery on the western edge of town, I told Smurf about the talk with my father.  “So that’s it?” he said as we were led to a quiet back corner of the restaurant, away from the men in their starched white shirts seated at the bar.  “No way you’re taking it?”

“What am I supposed to do?” I said.  “He can’t even talk to me like a son, can’t apologize for anything.”  I stopped and thought of my father’s words, giving me credit for helping to get the gym built.

Smurf looked away, visibly upset, toward a television at the bar.  “Looks like they’re going to hire Davis,” he said while I stared down at the menu in silence.

I nodded and was relieved to talk about something else.  “Seems like everybody’s going to stay on.  Jeffries, Moye.”

“Even your boy Dane Fife,” Smurf said.

“Why’s he my boy?” I said, laughing.  “White boy who can shoot?”

“And not a damn thing else,” Smurf said, leaning his head toward the table, choking with laughter.

We talked over beer and burgers, reminiscing for the next hour about our high school days.  Not just basketball, but classes that we’d had together, teachers who were still fun to mock.

“I bet Kiefer will still be at Jefferson when Selena goes there,” Smurf said, talking about our geometry teacher, who’d already had white hair bursting from his ears when we were in his class.  It was a funny thought, me being one of his colleagues, but Smurf had gotten started on the topic of his daughter, so the subject was effectively changed.

After we paid the bill and walked out to Smurf’s car, I thought of Bobby Knight.  “You think he’s really such an asshole?” I said.  “Or does he really think that he’s doing good by being that way with those kids?”

“He’s convinced of it,” Smurf said.  “Absolutely.  I don’t think for a second that he believes he’s in the wrong.”

That was all we said about that.  Driving back, stopped at a light, Smurf looked over at me, this serious look on his face.  “I’ve got to confess something,” he said.  “I called Hollings today.  Asked how he was doing, said you were in town.  Thought maybe we could get together, talk about old times.  Cheer the guy up.”

“What?” I said, the agitation clear in my voice.

“He said we could stop by his place,” Smurf said, his voice growing quiet.  I couldn’t believe Smurf was desperate enough to conjure up such a friendship, to ignore the things Hollings had done or the fact that they had never even been friends.

We drove down Wabash Avenue and neared Smurf’s house.  “Just drop me off,” I said.  “You go see him yourself.  I don’t want to get involved.”  We sat for a minute outside his house in silence, and I told him I was going to just go off for a drive somewhere.  He nodded and I got out, watched him pull away slowly down the street.

Smurf and I grew up only a few blocks apart.  The sun had set and I got in my car, not even sure what I wanted to do.  I drove slowly and parked across the street from my old house, looked in on my father’s lonely life.  A light was on in the living room.  I had hoped to wait patiently, to observe my father from afar, but for ten minutes there had been no movement.  I pictured my father already passed out on the couch, Law and Order playing on the TV in front of him.

I went to the door slowly, hoping to catch sight of him, unaware that he was being watched.  He wasn’t there, though, and finally I rang the doorbell.  I waited, counting the seconds in my head like we’d done on the schoolyard, waiting to blitz the quarterback in a game of tag football: one alligator, two alligator . . .

My father answered on fourteen, and when I looked into his face, I wondered if he’d hoped I’d just give up and go away forever.  He opened the door, put out his hand and waved me in.

The house smelled ripe with old age.  It was true, my father hadn’t changed much—the carpet, drapes, the old orange leather couch.  He even had the same pictures hanging on the wall, the images that showed us all as one big happy family.  On the mantle there was the picture I’d sent him five years earlier, of me standing, smiling goofily on a beach in Greece.  Across from it was a picture of my sister, one that looked like it was just as old.

I sat down on the couch.  My father sat in his one new piece of furniture, a black leather recliner.  He had on CNN, turned the sound off.  “I didn’t mean for things to turn out that way today,” I said.

My father nodded from his chair.  Looking at him, sunken down, wearing an old undershirt stained yellow under the armpits, my father looked like a sad little caricature of his old self.  I stood up, went to the window, watching my father’s reflection.  “What do you want me to say?” I said finally, feeling bitter and hostile.  “Did you seriously think that after coming out here, with all the memories and you being the same old prick, that I’d want to stay and take the job?”

He stood up too, shaking a little and holding the side of his chair.  “I didn’t know what else to say,” he said.  “I thought, this is the way, this is the way to get him out here.  Otherwise, what could I say?”

My father stood at his chair and I remained at the window, neither of us ready to move.  But at that moment, I saw my father for who he really was: a deeply flawed man, someone who had never learned to fill the gaps in his life with anything but basketball.  It was the only way he knew how to live, how to talk to people.  And really, I don’t think I was much different.  Nor was Hollings, in his own perverted way, trying to compensate for some void in his life; or Smurf, looking to conjure up a past that had long since faded.

Back home finally, beside my father, I looked at him in that light and wasn’t sure what I wanted.  But I needed him to take the next step, to be the one to lead me along where he had once failed.

 

Jeff Janssens recently received his MFA degree from the University of Pittsburgh. This is his first published work of fiction. His book reviews can be found in Hot Metal Bridge.