The year I turned 13, my first as a townie, I often withdrew into the realm of fantasy, as uprooted children will. In one of my recurring dream lives I became a local basketball legend, escaping the shadow of my father’s hard-court heroics. In another I became fantastically rich, escaping forever the shame of my family’s poverty. I found validation for both of these dreams in the attentions of one old man.
A basketball hoop stood on one end of the tennis courts in Currie, Minnesota — a railroad spur town, population 350, to which the railroad no longer ran — and I would shoot there for hours, practicing my midrange jumper and my crossover dribble in an effort to realize the more immediately attainable of my fantasies. It was nice to have a proper court on which to practice after the years I’d spent shooting at a netless rim hung on the side of a barn. On the farm I’d chased the ball all over the property, even — I should say especially — when I made a shot that would have swished; now there was not just a net on the rim but a chain-link fence around the court, which did a lot to make up for the fact of my family’s downward mobility. Every time I went there, the old man across the street came out to watch.
I enjoyed the audience for several reasons, chief among them the Cadillac parked in his driveway. It was a real beauty, the newest model, creamy white and always polished to a gleam; I’d seen no other car like it in our part of the world. Of a gap-toothed codger with a rusty Ford Granada, I suppose I’d have been suspicious, but the aura surrounding that Cadillac lent the old man instant gravitas. I pretended I didn’t notice he was there, sitting in his lawn chair, watching me, but every dribble between my legs or behind my back was meant to impress him. As I passed by on my way home he would call me over. He’d open a beer for himself and a Coca-Cola for me, and we’d sit with them in his yard, drinking and making small talk. He told stories about how he’d coached the boys’ basketball team in the 1950s, back when the town had its own high school, and before he embarked on a banking career from which he was poised to retire any year. The school building had been turned into a mushroom farm — windows blacked out, security bars installed — which gave it the look of an institution where children were imprisoned and tortured.
Kind of ironic that the old school became a place to grow mushrooms, he said. Different product, same process: keep ’em in the dark and feed ’em full of shit.
He often said funny, irreverent things like that, one of the reasons I came to like him so much. Our town was touchy in inverse proportion to its size — the words “God’s country” were often invoked with a shrill pride — and to hear a town elder talk shit, literal shit, about the place was a bracing shock. He endeared himself further by telling me that he wished he’d had a player like me, back when he’d been a coach. His praise buttressed my hope of one day playing college hoops. That possibility remained six years away, but I found time to dream of it daily. In my seventh-grade art class I drew versions of the Georgetown Bulldog, the Louisville Cardinal, nothing but the mascots of powerhouse schools. I wallpapered my bedroom in cutouts from Sports Illustrated: Dr. J, Magic Johnson, Andrew Toney, Larry Bird, all of them frozen in poses of balletic grace on the walls above me as I lulled myself toward sleep by lying in bed, lofting a ball toward the ceiling, trying to achieve the perfect backspin on my fingertip release. I was going to be a shooting guard, one of those stone-cold marksmen, utterly without conscience, who made their name bombing away from distance.
My father had been the high school player of the year in Lubbock, Texas, 1969, and my grandmother had made a scrapbook of newspaper clippings about every game he’d ever played from freshman year on. I often pulled this talisman from the hope chest in my parents’ bedroom, awed by his numbers and the photos of a lithe white boy who could dunk and shoot the jumper both. As I held it in my hands I couldn’t help but dream of the day when the local paper would write about me. My father always told me how I could have played better during C-squad games; he focused on the passes I hadn’t thrown crisply enough, the shot I’d rushed when I should’ve taken my time. He thought our team was poorly coached and if he didn’t tell me these things, I’d never learn. He always prefaced his critique by saying he wanted me to get better, but I wanted him to tell me, as so many others had, that I was already good.
When I stopped by after shooting hoops the old man always smiled at me, a smile that twinkled with the handiwork of the best dentistry money could buy. I’d given him a show of all my best moves, minus the defenders and the teammates with whom I’d have shared the court in an actual game, and he liked what he saw. He liked it so much he always gave me a $20 bill. At first I’d turn away, pretend I couldn’t accept it; I was a country boy new to townie ways, but I was smart enough to know that it was unseemly to take his money without refusing it at least once. He would wait a while, then slip it in the pocket of my shorts with a tenderness I mistook for generosity.
You keep that to yourself, he said. If word gets out I’ll have every kid in town knocking on my door. I have more money than I’ll ever need. One thing about getting old, you realize friends are more important than money.
He gave my thigh a squeeze.
I think we could be friends, he said.