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Coach Ax’s Preseason Party (TGWP 5)

May 7, 2017

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This is an excerpt from This Game We Play, by Greg Blake Miller, continued from “Earthmovers” (TGWP 4).

I pulled into the horseshoe driveway and parked behind a black Bentley with red leather interior and a license plate (DST FLM) with a frame that read, “I Brake For Pickup Games”. This car, let me be clear, did not belong to either of my parents. I let myself in the house. I picked Dusty the Plush Dust Flame up from the well of the grandfather clock, turned him around a time or two, smiled at him. My father and a fat man walked out of the den, laughing.

“The sharpshooter!” said the fat man. He hugged me and wound up hugging Dusty, too. I’d known Gardner Bumbry all my life. He’d been at the beach with his boys the day I lost my rock.

“Good to see you,” I said.

“Got any any eligibility left?”

“I’ve been washed up a long time now.”

“Tell me again,” said Bumbry. “Why didn’t you come play for us?”

“Self-actualization.”

“Your Pop tried to sell me that crap.”

“He did the right thing,” my mother said. She had come from the kitchen to check on Dusty. She was still carrying the toothbrush.

“I’ve got some floss in the car if you need it,” said Bumbry.

“Al was under the impression that he could slice a cucumber.”

My father waved his bandaged finger.

“Are you actualized?” Bumbry asked me.

“He needed to get out from under Al’s wing,” said my mother.

“And yet,” said Bumbry, “here you are.”

I looked at each of my shoulders, then smiled at Bumbry.

“By God, you’re right,” I said.

***

Blum arrived at eight, eyed me across the room and mouthed, “Smartass.” I shrugged and bit into a celery stick. He approached my mother with apologies for his tardiness. “I was delayed at the gate,” he said. “It seems I’d already arrived.” Distracted by the disappearance of a silver dip tray, Mom pressed Blum’s hand. “Of course you had,” she said. Blum crossed the room, navigating the sea of bald spots and silvery perms. He was a full head taller than the doctors and dentists and tax attorneys and real-estate developers and rough-handed founders of carpet-cleaning empires. He nodded and smiled his mournful smile as they looked up at him. These were the folks who cut the checks and bought the seats and whispered in the ears of university regents and kept guileless and code-bound men like Blum and my father gainfully employed.

Blum clapped my shoulder with one paw and gripped my hand with the other. It was either a manly half-embrace or a prelude to tearing my limbs off.

“Clever, Tuck.”

“I think it’s Friar Tuck.”

“They kept me there half an hour.”

“They wouldn’t let me in. You, however, they’ll let in twice. You’re an important man, Aaron.”

“Where’s your better half?”

“Evan’s got the sniffles.”

The ever-gallant Blum saw my wife’s absence as an opening to be frank, so he reminded me about my day on the mountainside. For emphasis, he added the ever-appropriate question “What the hell is wrong with you?”

His hand was on my shoulder again. He squeezed. He sighed.

“I shouldn’t be late for these things,” he said.

“Technically, you weren’t.”

“Technically doesn’t cut it.”

O’Kyle was on the other side of the room, waiting for an audience with Bumbry, who seemed determined to talk to everyone else first. O’Kyle was relatively new to Zantrum basketball, but he understood a thing or two. He knew, for instance, that Bumbry hadn’t missed a home game in 30 years. He knew Bumbry’s love of the program was matched by his generosity to it. He knew the day was approaching when my father would either step down or be gently led into the life of an oracle emeritus. He was not opposed to quietly hastening that day. There was value, he knew, to being in the better graces of Gardner Bumbry.

“I think I’ll go say hi to our friend Kenny,” I said.

“There really is something wrong with you,” said Blum.

When I reached O’Kyle, he was frowning at a cracker. He sensed me without looking up. O’Kyle had better peripheral vision than Blum.

“At least you show up for the parties, Junior.”

“I never miss the essentials.”

“Blum tell you everything’s okay, you’re doing fine?”

“He told me I was an ass.”

O’Kyle got the cracker stuck in his throat. He sucked at an empty Perrier, swallowed hard, pushed me aside and headed for the bar.

A fat hand squeezed my shoulder and I turned to smell the martini breath of Gardner Bumbry.

“Shouldn’t you be making friends at this point in your career?”

“You’d think it, wouldn’t you.”

“A word of advice.”

“Just a word.”

“Care.”

“Now, Mr. Bumbry, that’s the hard part.” I hated myself for saying it. Ever since I’d come back to town I’d been channeling the cast of Blackboard Jungle.

“I don’t remember you being the rebel sort.”

“Neither do I.”

“Do you know what I did before I made my fortune?”

“Personal trainer?”

Nothing. That’s what I did. I wanted to publish the Tribune, so I pulled my old man’s partners and drinking pals together and I sweet-talked the bank and I drew up a slick-sounding business plan and I bought the damn thing. Before that, I was just a kid out of college coming back to daddy’s railroad dough–”

Gardner Bumbry liked to call his father a railroad man and himself a publisher, and it was true enough, though for a long time now the real money had come from the immense real-estate holdings he’d inherited on the Zantrum Prospect, as the resort corridor was called. The old rail baron had spent the ‘30s gathering up desert lots like feathers from a flustered pigeon, and the land was already making handsome rents by the ‘60s, when Gardner came of age and became a major creative force on the Prospect. Gardner Bumbry built hotel-casino-spa-resorts with elegance dusty Zantrum had never seen. The Acropolis, The Seventh Sea, Baghdad (renamed Babylon in 1991)–all of them were conceived by Gardner Bumbry. By now, he’d cashed out of most of the properties, or stayed on as a small investor with a big voice. He’d even passed stewardship of his first love, the Tribune, on to his son, Dickie. Most of all, now, Gardner Bumbry gave away money. Gardner Bumbry was the city’s leading philanthropist. Gardner Bumbry was a very rich man. I could never tell if it was cool or compromising that he seemed to like my father so much.

He was still talking.

“…I saw that I had certain advantages and I capitalized on them in a hurry. I didn’t do anything else before deciding to do what I wanted to do. Tucker, listen to me. You’ve got what I had: an IN. Access. And instead you’re quitting teams and running around all the libraries in hippyville futzing around about God knows what little wars in God knows what century–”

“Fifteenth.”

“It doesn’t–”

“Not war. Internecine struggle. But mostly village life. Peaceful village life.”

Bumbry grabbed my shoulder again. This time he squeezed it. Why was everyone after my shoulder? Later that night I found a bruise.

“Look,” said Bumbry, “your life is not a staging ground, it’s a proving ground. Since you’re here, I imagine you’d like to be a coach. My advice to you is–”

“Nope.” I shook my head at the most powerful man in town. “You’ve already used up your word.”

Bumbry, eyes glassy with a mix of alcoholic emotion and fatherly sincerity, stood flabbergasted. His glass tilted in his hand and he spilled on a crocodile shoe.

I took his glass. “Let me freshen that up for you.”

Bumbry shrugged and turned up his palms as I walked away.

“Now he’s a waiter!” he said, and was, just for a moment, alone, an old vaudevillian in an echoing theater.

***

I never did make it back to Gardner Bumbry with a new martini on new rocks; as I approached the bar, the party hit that moment any good party hits, when some Bearer of Essential Charisma walks in, shifting the mood, raising the expectations, casting a new light on everyone else. Or maybe it just seemed that way to me. In any case, my big brother Simon had arrived.

Bumbry somehow transported himself to the entry hall and was first to welcome Simon and Donna. I couldn’t hear the chatter (I could, however, hear Bumbry’s mighty backslap), but I watched as Simon smiled his most generous smile and shook Bumbry’s big hand, adding a brotherly left-hand grip just above the rich man’s elbow. I watched as Simon managed, with no rudeness whatsoever, to turn from Bumbry to old Leticia Morten, the singer’s widow (she got a big warm hug), and then from her to Dick Plumley, our parents’ young neighbor and a fanatic golfer. Dick was touching his own elbow in a clinical sort of way, apparently seeking advice. Simon the Surgeon took it in his piano-player hands, manipulated it back and forth, put a wise look on his subtly lined face and leaned forward to whisper something in Plumley’s ear. Plumley’s handsome blue cheeks widened into a big, dimpled smile. “So, Tuesday!” he called as he stepped away. Simon nodded and winked and punched something into a Palm Pilot. Meanwhile, petite, redheaded Donna was graciously accepting too-eager embraces from my mother (who perhaps thought she could squeeze a child out of her) and basking in Dad’s little-boy-with-a-crush smile. Simon looked up from his palm pilot, raised his hand and ran it through thick chocolate-brown hair. The hand hovered for a moment at Simon’s newly gray temple. Each bone in that hand seemed exquisitely apparent to me, each muscle coiled and supple, each finger a finely tuned athlete. Look at us! the hands seemed to say. They were business cards written in flesh. Simon narrowed his dark eyes, searched himself inwardly for a moment, then pressed his lips together and nodded slightly, as if recalling something important, something that assured him that everything was, indeed, just fine.

– Greg Blake Miller

Next: “Madness” (TGWP 6).

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