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Tucker on the Mountain (TGWP 2)

April 21, 2016

Miller5-R7-013-5

From the novel This Game We Play, by Greg Blake Miller
Part I, “A New Job” (Continued from TGWP 1: “The Oldest Rock in Mud Pony Lake”.)

1. The Mountain

I was sitting on a cliff when the phone rang.

Beneath me, the valley sprawled in muddy brown and terra cotta red and a hundred pebbly shades of tan. The heart of the city was dark with mulberry trees. I’d spent my childhood beneath the branches when they were young and marked the edge of town, before the stucco tracts had spread like some inflammation of the skin. Ten years now I’d been away, grimly tinkering with the idea of growing up, and the valley floor had redrawn itself in my absence. Now, from the mountainside, I couldn’t pick out my boyhood home, my boyhood neighborhood, my nearest boyhood major cross streets. It was as if the city had swallowed them.

My parents had escaped—one is tempted to say just in time, but just in time for what I’m not sure—and now were living in a too-clean house on the town’s new edge. Ten minutes of indifferently paved highway to their east was the little stucco one-story to which I’d just moved with my wife and my baby boy. Everything had changed in the valley of my youth, but my folks were still just down the corridor. All I had to do was holler.

From my perch on the west face of Mud Pony Mountain, I could see their house, and mine too. There were no mulberries to hide the rooftops. We’d all moved someplace visible, a bulging belt of Zantrum Valley floor speckled pea-green with staked saplings in pink-rock yards. Beyond the belt, old ranches huddled here and there beneath cottonwood clusters, awaiting the final offer, the earthmover, the axe. A hundred thousand acres of beige crust and scrubrush and basalt boulders waited, too. The brown mountains waited. The lizards waited.

On my cellphone—the voice of my old friend Blum.

“How’s your mood?” asked Blum.

I could hear the sneakers squeaking behind him.

“Did you know,” I said, “That the bottom layer of schist on Mud Pony Mountain is 1.7 billion years old–”

“Tucker–”

“And that directly atop that sits a layer of limestone which is only 700 million years old?”

Blum sighed.

“Is that so?” he said.

“That is so.”

“Thank you for sharing that. Now–”

“Do you realize, Blum, that that makes for a one billion-year gap in the record?”

“Fascinating. Tucker, why–”

“They call it the Great Unconformity.”

“Are we speaking metaphorically?”

“No, geologically.”

“Where are you, Tucker?”

Blum could be a bit thick at times.

“I’m about a quarter of the way up Mud Pony Mountain,” I said. “They’ve got an informational plaque here. Pretty clear day. The city just sparkles.”

“Can you see the campus?”

“Hang on.” I put on my sunglasses. New prescription. “Yep. Sun’s glinting off the copper on Bumbry Tower.”

“Can you go to your car, sit down, and drive to Bumbry Tower?”

“Why? What’s happening at Bumbry Tower?”

“You know, Tucker,” Blum said, “you’ve turned out a real ass.” Then he hung up.

I put the phone down on a big rock and tried to think about the schist some more, but it was no use. I kept hearing Blum tell me I’d turned out an ass. You had to hand it to the guy. He knew me about as well as anybody.

 

The problem, and the reason I was an ass, was this: Blum was no longer just my old friend, but, as of that fall, my colleague. And not just my colleague, but my superior. Blum was the oldest and most-trusted assistant coach of the University of Zantrum Dust Flames basketball team. I was the youngest and least-trusted. Halfway across the wide brown valley, there was a gym in the shadow of Bumbry Tower, and my old friend Blum had every right to expect me to be there. At that moment, 12 tall young men in long shorts were sitting on a hardwood floor hugging their knees, rocking gently to 12 imaginary grooves, listening to a man much older than Blum tell them that March triumphs are born in October workouts.

“The question is,” he was saying, “are you satisfied with your October workouts?”

The old man would smile and turn and leave the gym, calf muscles churning like pistons. The tall young men would feel a little guilty. My friend Blum would look at them and shake his head and say, “He’s hurting, my friends. Make no mistake.”

Then, a deep, deep breath, let out very, very slowly.

“Understand, fellas, this could be his last year.”

It was October 14, 1999, and a new season was about to begin.

 

That year, as every year for the preceding half decade, the assistants were wondering whether the old man might announce his retirement, or perhaps die. There was nothing wishful to this thinking, I think. It’s fair to say most people adored the old man. Adoration, however, did not preclude a strong interest in the line of succession. Blum’s chief concern was not that the program fall into his hands, but that it not fall into the wrong hands.

My friend Blum was 40 years old. He had lived his entire adult life in the Zantrum basketball program. He’d never married; he had no siblings. His mother had died when he was 15, struck by a linen truck on a skinny Bronx sidestreet. His father had died more conventionally, of heart disease, when Blum was 21. Zantrum basketball was the only family Blum had. He’d been a bruising reserve forward (as the Zantrum fans recall) or a thug (as his opponents recall) on our 1977 and ’78 national championship teams. Now he was a towering, pudgy, bearded sentimentalist, the “hugger” every staff needs. He’d been the old man’s assistant for 18 years, and in those years he’d celebrated two more national championships. He’d eaten about a thousand meals at my family’s house. Blum was like a big brother to me, though I had one of my own. Apparently, I just couldn’t get enough of that sort of thing. I’d met Blum just before that ‘76-‘77 season, when I was six years old. I’d latched onto him and never really let go. I knew him well enough to know what he was up to down there in the gym that day while I was sitting on Mud Pony Mountain. He was telling the players how badly their lack of effort was wounding the old man. He was telling them the old man deserved better.

The old man, I ought to tell you, was my father.

When they weren’t calling my father the old man, they called him Coach Ax. Al Axelrod had been coaching the Dust Flames for 29 years. He was, by most everyone’s estimation, or mine at least, one of the best coaches that ever lived.

Continue reading: TGWP Section 3: “The Old Man and the Gym.”

 

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