Authors: Aaron Gwyn
guy is its youngest and newest player, thirty-six-year-old Jay “Cheese” Colburn, who was added precisely to provide the bulk they’ve been missing, but who has proven to be too slow and fat for even the Double-C Division, his 285 pounds concentrated in a gut that is tacked onto his six-one frame like a horse’s feedbag.
No, clearly, the Foaming Forties need a big man.
But this is delicate territory. To admit a need on a team sport is to criticize the player manning that position, which is why the guys have suffered for fifteen years with Van Goose at the point—he of the severely impaired vision in his left eye (the 1991 champagne-cork incident) and the reason a Forties fast break so often features Van Goose dribbling down the middle of the court and four guys racing to get open on his right side. In fact, it says something about the team’s glaring need at center that a one-eyed point guard
the Forties most pressing issue.
By far the most vocal critic of the team’s weakness in the paint is Mike “Hoss” Wendell, at five six the shortest and feistiest of the Foaming Forties, a forty-two-year-old Barney Rubble lookalike who bitterly resents the wasted heights of his teammates.
“If I were six six,” he famously said after one game, “I’d be in the NBA.”
This prompted a slew of
If you were six six
retorts from Hoss’s teammates. “If you were six six, you’d have the arms of a Tyrannosaur. . . .” “If you were six six, you could finally ride the roller coaster. . . .” “If you were six six, your dick would look like a doorknob. . . .” “If you were six six, you’d be a six-foot-six-inch douchebag. . . .”
And so on.
This quest to get a legitimate big man has been going on for at least three seasons, but it’s gotten more urgent recently, as the aging team has fallen to the cellar of the second-lowest division in the city rec league. To a man, they are well aware of what will happen if they finish at the bottom of the Double-C Division; they will be forced to drop to the lowest division in the city, the dreaded Triple-C.
This is the death of hope, having nowhere to fall.
And it is why the quest to recruit a banger has become so urgent. Earlier this season, Hoss was punched over a simple misunderstanding in a bar (“Hey big fella, I don’t suppose you play ball”) and the team wasted two games on Van Goose’s six-foot-four-inch brother-in-law, who fouled out of both without taking a single shot (“Goosie, I don’t think your brother-in-law understood the whole
part of basketball”).
And this is how the Foaming Forties find themselves today at the most important crossroad in the team’s twenty-year history, holding their first-ever official team meeting, convening at the big round center table of their sponsoring haunt, the Red Lion Tavern. This not being a game day, they are dressed as civilians; were anyone to glance over at this gathering of out-of-shape, tired-looking middle-aged men,
is not exactly what would come to mind.
The last guy to show up is the focus of the meeting—their leader and team captain, Cole Griffith. Divorced, bankrupt, chronically unemployed, Cole has somehow managed for twenty years to be both the least successful and most respected of the Foaming Forties. He’s the best player on the team, certainly, but what his teammates truly admire is his ability to continue attracting women in their twenties even as he limps ingloriously into his forties. Lately, though, since breaking up with his most recent girlfriend, Claire, Cole Griffith has been off his game—lethargic, dizzy, perhaps a little depressed, which is why he got his first medical checkup in a decade this morning, and how he found himself earlier today in the office of an icy, mumbling heart specialist, who looked over the readout from Cole’s electrocardiogram and pronounced it
Dr. Chill muttered
arrhythmogenic right ventricular dysplasia
and he muttered
supraventricular syncope episode
and he muttered
and Cole said, “I’ll have the first one, with the soup,” the doctor ignoring him, muttering,
Cole saying, “I loved their first album,” the unbowed doctor pointing to Cole’s readout, where a small bump led to a big spike and an apparently disturbing trough, Cole saying, “We should sell this stock,” the doctor mumbling right through all of Cole’s premier lines (really solid material),
immediate catheter ablation
, a fairly routine procedure that carries only a slight risk of Cole’s
dying on the operating table
“Wait,” Cole said. “I missed a step. Are you saying this is serious?”
, the doctor said.
And now it was Cole’s turn to mutter, how he’s been out of work for some time now (“not a great atmosphere for entrepreneurs”), how his current situation doesn’t afford him the necessary funds for health insurance, how, given the cost of such a procedure, perhaps the doctor could go over the relative risks of having the catheter ablation versus . . . say . . . not.
Without the procedure, the doctor said, there would likely be more arrhythmias, dizzy spells, fainting, and, in the worst case,
—Cole making one last attempt at breaking the man, “Students for a Democratic Society?” and the stone-faced doctor saying,
Sudden Death Syndrome
“Ah,” said Cole.
The doctor refused to give a percentage for this
Sudden Death Syndrome
, other than to say it was
. “Fairly,” Cole repeated. Yes, muttered the doctor, in fact, if Cole were to refrain from activities that could lead to the arrhythmia, he might not even have another spell.
“Activities,” Cole said, “such as . . .”
Well, theoretically, it could be anything that raises the heart rate
, the doctor said.
Running. Basketball. Strenuous sex
“Well,” Cole said, “at least I’ll still have Zumba.”
Finally, the doctor laughed.
And so it is with a heavy, defective heart that Cole Griffith joins his team for this meeting at the Red Lion. At first glance, this gathering of guys is no different from the other three times a week they come here (two pitchers of beer, buffalo wings, garlic-cheese fries). But this time, Cole finds himself staring straight into the maw of mortality, trying to figure out how to tell his best friends that after two decades of playing basketball with them, he may be done.
But before he can say anything, his teammates offer up their own agenda for the meeting.
It is common knowledge among them that Cole’s ex-wife Andrea has begun dating a man four years her junior, a six-foot-six-inch stack of Latin manhood named Rodrigo, a former player in the Portuguese professional leagues . . . and it’s the opinion of the fellas . . . well, their hope anyway, that, uh . . . you know . . . since they’ve been looking for a big guy . . . and since . . . well . . . maybe—
“What are you guys saying?” Cole asks.
play pro ball, Cole,” Eck says.
“He played semi-pro ball. In
. Where he also worked at a car wash.”
to play basketball.”
“Yeah, in Portuguese . . . whatever their currency is.”
Professor Hadel chimes in: “I’m pretty sure it’s the euro.”
Cole looks around at the faces, at the aging and tired, at the sloppy, drunk, and listless, his friends, his teammates, his tribesmen. He cannot believe what he’s hearing . . . and on the very day his own frailty has been served up to him—a cold muttered plate of shit. “Let me get this straight,” he says. “You’re seriously asking me to—”
Hoss finishes for him. “Ask your ex-old lady’s new fuck buddy to come be our big man.”
through the barely open door, considers her ex suspiciously. “The girls are at school, Cole.”
“I know that,” Cole says. “I came to talk to you.”
Andrea’s deep suspicion is replaced by even deeper suspicion. “If I agree to lower your child support any more, I’ll be paying
“It’s not that. Can’t I come in?”
She opens the door enough for Cole to enter.
Andrea is wearing yoga pants.
Cole Griffith is weak for yoga pants. Yoga pants are his kryptonite. Also: skirts, high boots, televised sports, and dark beer. “Wow,” he says to his ex-wife. “You . . . look great.”
“God, you and yoga pants. I’m late for work. What is it?”
Cole moves into the living room. Where to start? He looks at the school pictures of his daughters on the wall and feels his throat constrict. “Can we sit?”
She follows him in and plops down in a chair.
Cole sits on the couch and takes a deep breath. “I've been thinking . . . maybe I should get to know your boyfriend better.”
“What?” Andrea winces, as if a stink has entered the room. “Where’s this coming from, Cole?” She narrows her eyes. “Wait, is this some kind of reciprocal thing? Are you about to introduce me to some skanky new girlfriend? Oh my God, you are. You’re getting married. Did you get some poor girl pregnant?”
Cole holds up his hands as Andrea’s accusations stampede wildly around the room.
“Jesus, Cole, I am
helping some twenty-two-year-old tattooed barista with a labia ring raise your bastard child—”
“Wait, wait, wait,” Cole leans forward on the couch. “Andrea, I’m not getting married. I’m not even seeing anyone. I’m just trying—” Cole stops and thinks, trying to what?
Andrea stares at him.
And as often happens to Cole Griffith, his motivation seems hopelessly muddled now. What
he trying to do—recruit a ringer for his rec-league basketball team, or something larger, something real? And that’s when Cole realizes that Rodrigo is just his excuse for coming here. What he really longs for is someone to tell about the electrocardiogram, about his condition, about
Sudden Death Syndrome
What he really wants is for someone to care.
“Are you okay, Cole?”
“Yeah, it’s just . . . ” Cole looks at the photos of his daughters again. “If this Rodrigo is going to be in my daughters’ lives . . . maybe I should get to know him better.”
Andrea looks perplexed. “Well, I appreciate that . . . I guess.” Her eyes drift from Cole to the floor next to him. “But honestly, I don’t know that Rod’s going to
in the girls’ lives.”
He can tell she’s sorry she engaged on this topic. “I don’t know. Maybe it’s the age difference. Or something cultural.” She sighs. “He’s very . . . Latin.” She doesn’t want to say any more. “Maybe I’m just too old to feel this insecure, to be dealing with this high school stuff.”
“Do you want me to talk to him?”
Andrea snorts laughter.
“I’m serious. You helped me with my last relationship.” This is true; recently Andrea convinced Cole to take another chance with Claire, the lovely and reasonable college Spanish instructor, yoga enthusiast, Prius hyper-miler, vegetarian except for bacon.
“Yeah, and what happened?” Andrea asks. “You called her father a Nazi.” This is also true. They broke up after Cole got in a political argument with Claire’s conservative father and refused to apologize for calling him a Nazi.
“The important thing is that you were there for me,” Cole says. “I’d like to do the same for you.”
Andrea stares again. “What could you possibly have to say to Rod?”
And even if this visit was originally nothing but a recruiting trip, Cole feels entirely sincere in his desire to help his ex-wife, and to get to know the man who may have to step in to raise his little girls. “I’d tell him how important it is to communicate honestly. I’d tell him not to screw things up . . . the way I did.”
Sometimes, Cole doesn’t recognize the truth until it comes out of his mouth. “I would tell him,” his voice goes gravelly and thin, “that you are a one-of-a-kind woman . . . and he needs to do whatever he can to make you happy.”
Andrea is staring so hard Cole wouldn’t be surprised to find out later that he has been X-rayed. “Cole,” she finally says, and she reaches out gently for his arm. “I’m sorry, but you are the last person in the world who could give advice on making me happy.”
for his first game with the Foaming Forties ten minutes before tipoff. He enters the gym carrying a gear bag with the words
on the side.
“That must’ve been his pro team,” Hadel says excitedly.
The guys all stop their warm-ups to watch Rodrigo take off his sweatpants. He pulls a huge pair of basketball shoes from the bag.
“Look at the size of those shoes,” Cheese says.
“Sorry I am late, fellows,” Rodrigo calls cheerfully from the bench.
,” says Eck. “Did you hear the way he said that?”
Rodrigo stretches a little, and makes his way out onto the court. He thanks Cole for inviting him. “It means a lot to me. I have not made many friends here.” Then he warns the team, “I am rusty.” Rust or no, Rodrigo still looks out of place warming up with the Forties, broad across the shoulders, long-armed and long-legged—a gazelle in a pen of hogs. But he’s an old gazelle—hair graying, jersey strained over a thickening middle. His knee surgeon must’ve been Dr. Frankenstein; the joints are covered with old surgical zippers. He runs like someone who has recently spent too much time on a horse. True to his claims of rust, Rodrigo’s first few warm-up shots clang off the rim, but eventually he finds the range and makes a few, the last one a long graceful jump hook that gives the men something like hope. As they finish warm-ups, Van Goose leans over to Cole and says, “Is it weird that I have an erection?”
The buzzer sounds to start the game.
The team they are playing tonight, Shaky Ray’s Pizza, is in second place in the Double-C Division, and features
big men—brothers if Cole had to guess—six-five lumbering hunks of middle-aged side fat and back hair who normally would have their way with the Foaming Forties, but who are quickly neutralized by the strong Rodrigo in the post. He pushes, he battles, he scores, he rebounds, and in the first quarter, he plays the two Shaky Ray’s big men to a draw.