Authors: Aaron Gwyn
But Rodrigo is in even worse shape than they thought. He lumbers up and down the court and has to take himself out every few minutes. Still, as the Forties hoped, with him wrestling the Shaky Ray’s brutes in the key, at least they have a chance. In fact, at halftime they trail only by one—34–33—Rodrigo responsible for a third of the Foaming Forties’ points.
The guys can barely contain their glee. Eck actually wants to start drawing up plays—something they haven’t done in a decade. Van Goose says something about the playoffs. At one point, Hoss attempts an ill-advised leaping chest bump with Rodrigo, only to hit him in the balls with his shoulder.
The entire team is in high spirits—that is, all but Cole. The Foaming Forties’ career leader in every statistical category, he has only three points at halftime. And it’s not just that Rodrigo is taking so many shots. Cole just doesn’t feel right out there. Every time he runs, he recalls the cold hands of that prick cardiologist and he thinks,
Sudden Death Syndrome
Then, early in the second half, Cole dribbles off his leg and he stands there at half court, looking around as if this gym has just materialized around him.
“Are you okay, man?” Eck asks.
Cole wasn’t able to tell Andrea about his condition; he hasn’t told his teammates; in fact he hasn’t told anyone. He keeps thinking the phrase
. “I’m just tired, I guess,” he tells Eck. He pulls himself out of the game and sits on the bench next to Hadel, the adjunct community-college instructor, and the closest thing to an intellectual on the Foaming Forties.
“Amazing how one player makes such a difference,” Hadel says. “Rodrigo’s game is sublime.”
Cole hates that word,
, hates the way his friend Hadel overuses it. The first time he ever heard it, Cole assumed it was something bad, not something soaring and transcendent. It was likely that prefix
that threw him.
? Just as with people, you can get a bad first impression from words.
Cole sighs deeply. Like a lot of old athletes, he’s always imagined life as a series of seasons. Not just fall, winter, spring, not just football, basketball, and baseball—but a whole life built of seasons, of growing periods and fallow times, ebbs and flows. It’s true with women, and with work, with friends and with happiness. This has been the key to his easygoing nature, knowing intuitively what every good baseball player knows, that even in a slump, the hits will come again; that if a shooter just keeps shooting the basketball, eventually the shots will fall. But now Cole sees there is an end to seasons, too, an end to sex and to drinking, an end to these friendships, end to basketball, end to everything that has defined him. An end to him.
“Hey, are you okay?” Hadel asks him.
“Yeah,” Cole says. But he is not.
Earlier that day, he went to see his unemployment counselor, who said that Cole wasn’t eligible for the various programs that help defray medical costs for unemployed people like him. He could try buying into a COBRA insurance program, of course, but since his heart condition would be considered preexisting, and since Cole can treat it by simply adjusting his lifestyle, he’d likely have to pay for the procedure himself anyway.
“I mean, is it really worth risking your life,” his counselor asked, “just to keep playing rec-league basketball?”
Cole ponders that very question as he watches his teammates labor up and down the court. God, he wonders, when did we get old? From the bench, he sees that even Rodrigo—despite the extravagant admiration of the Forties—is just another out-of-shape ex-jock. Cole looks all around this middle school gym. Other than the players, the seventy-year-old ref, and the bored woman running the scoreboard, no one is here watching this game.
So this is the end of basketball. This is what it looks like.
He and Eck formed this team twenty years ago, a few years after college. Andrea used to come to his games—a lot of the wives did. As they aged, he didn’t want Andrea to see him out here—not like this, not like those teams of old guys they used to destroy fifteen years ago—balding men in gray sweats chunking and wheezing and falling over, their shirts soaked, knees creaking. Who wants to watch this? It’s like the sex tapes of old people. (
, Eck said to him once,
if I ever look like that on the court, you’ll shoot me, right?
And yet, here they are, at the end. And there are only two choices. Quit. Or play.
That’s when Cole recalls his grandfather, his dad’s dad—Papa-Stu, a dockworker and crane operator in Everett. A big man broken by Parkinson’s, face in a permanent scowl, his big hands swollen like two catcher’s mitts. And his eyes—that’s what Cole remembers—and even then, Cole knew what those eyes were asking:
How the fuck did this happen to me?
Grandpa Cole takes a deep breath. He pulls the neoprene brace up over his knee. He reties his shoes. He leans over to Hadel, and just before checking himself back into the game, Cole Griffith says, “Sunsets are sublime, Hadel. And threesomes. That”—he points to Rodrigo, huffing up the court—“is just some old Portuguese ball hog.”
T IS AN EPIC
celebration at the Red Lion, a six-point victory over the number-two team in the Double-C Division. The Foaming Forties are back in the hunt. They giddily toast Rodrigo, who, frankly, lost wind as the game progressed, but still managed to contribute sixteen points and to hold the two Shaky Ray’s big men to six each. Old Forties also lifted their games tonight, Eck tossing in twelve points, Hoss ten, and Van Goose eight. But it was Cole Griffith who was the undisputed late-game hero, sparking a second-half rally when he reentered and played with the abandon of his twenty-five-year-old self, finishing with fifteen points, including a late three-pointer to ice it.
In the glow of victory, Cole feels magnanimous, bighearted. He loves this game; he loves his teammates; he loves this precarious life. He will go on playing until he can’t play anymore and if his heart gives out, let it be while he’s getting a hummer from some trampy waitress, let it be while fighting for a rebound, let him die in exuberance and not in fear in some nursing home. He’s so full of love now—for his teammates, for life—he even loves that old ball hog Rodrigo. In fact, if this is the man meant to give Cole’s daughters away at their weddings, then so be it. And so Cole happily participates with the rest of the Forties in the ritual nicknaming of their new teammate—
quickly dismissed as being too obvious,
Rod the Bod
sort of gay, the
just plain stupid, until eventually they settle on
, a reference to the swashbuckling Spaniard in the movie
The Princess Bride
. (“You keeled my father,” Eck says. “Prepare to be dunked on.”)
Inigo seems happy with his new nickname. He stands up, high-fiving his new teammates, and walks over to Cole, who has risen to buy another pitcher.
“What wonderful friends you have, Cole,” Inigo says, and he puts his arm around Cole’s shoulder in that drunken way common to all cultures. “What a fine team!” His voice rises above the din of the bar. “Thank you for asking me to play.”
“Our pleasure,” Cole says, and he pats the big man on his expansive back. “We probably wouldn’t have won without you.”
They separate and Inigo considers Cole carefully. “You are a good player,” he says, and it should be a straight compliment, but something about the way Inigo says it bothers Cole, as if maybe he’s being a bit condescending. Good. Good?
“I was all-city my senior year,” Cole says.
“There is something else I wanted to talk to you about,” Inigo says.
“Averaged fourteen a game—”
“It is a bit difficult—”
“I probably could’ve played small college ball—”
“I thought maybe you could give me some advice.”
This goes on for a few more minutes—the two of them standing above the table of revelers, talking past each other. Early-childhood experts call it parallel play, two toddlers with trucks playing side-by-side by without ever acknowledging the other’s imaginary world.
“It is about Andrea,” Inigo finally says.
This catches Cole’s attention. “What about her?”
Inigo takes a drink of beer. “I need to figure out how to tell her . . . well. You see. There is someone else.”
Cole stares up into the eyes of the team’s new big man. “What do you mean someone else?”
“A woman other than her, yes? I have begun seeing another woman, a younger woman, yes?” Inigo smiles and holds his hands above his chest, making the universal sign for huge breasts. “A really
woman.” He glances at the table below them, at the men drinking and toasting and plotting their next victory. “You know Andrea so well,” he says. “Tell me, how do you think she will take this?”
N THE EMERGENCY ROOM,
Van Goose fills Cole in on the things he missed. He remembers hurling himself into Rodrigo’s chest, and pulling him down onto the table. He recalls the pitchers being launched into the air, cold beer raining down on them as they grappled on the sticky bar floor. He remembers hands on his shoulders as the other guys tried to pull him off of Rodrigo and a great rush of adrenaline—the scuffling, grunting sounds as he and Rodrigo fought on the floor. He knows that he threw a few punches and that Rodrigo did, too, and that, thankfully, neither of them connected.
What he doesn’t recall is passing out.
But after he hears the story, he’s not sorry that he was unconscious—especially when he hears how his ex-wife’s soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend administered CPR on him. “He was practically cradling you,” Van Goose says. “Poor guy. He thought he’d killed you.”
Apparently, as Rodrigo lowered his mouth over Cole’s, Eck said something like,
I’m sorry, but someone really needs to get a picture of this.
Good, unflappable Eck. In the emergency room, Van Goose shows him the photo Eck snapped on his iPhone and immediately texted to the whole team. It looks like some kind of really specific, unfortunate pornography—two big middle-aged men kissing on a bar floor.
“Jesus,” Cole says.
Van Goose tells him there’s talk of using the photo as the team logo.
“Yeah, I could see that,” Cole says.
The emergency room doctor comes back in and asks Van Goose to wait outside.
The doctor flips through a chart. He tells Cole that everything looks basically okay, that his high blood-alcohol level and the exertion of the basketball game and the fight likely led to his passing out. “Although,” he says, “there is this slight irregularity in your EKG. Just to be on the safe side, I’d like you to see a cardiologist.”
Cole stares at the familiar heart chart—bump, spike, trough—and it seems suddenly like the pattern of his life, a good life, bumps and spike and troughs, the occasional barmaid, a rare fifteen-point game. “Oh, I have seen a cardiologist,” he says. He pounds his fist against his chest. “He said I have the heart of a bull.”
“Well then,” the doctor closes his file, “all I can do is advise a little less drinking and fighting.”
“Got it,” Cole says as he buttons his shirt.
In the lobby, Van Goose is closing his phone, having updated the guys on Cole’s condition. He has some good news. In spite of the fight, Rodrigo still wants to be on the team.
good news,” Cole agrees.
With Rodrigo, they actually have a chance at winning the Double-C Division. “And you know what that means,” Van Goose says. If they win the Double-C it means they could move up to the Single-C next season.
“Next season,” Cole says, and he smiles. Of course there may not
a next season. But that has always been the case. Every season is a miracle of luck, hope, and survival, of bumps, spikes, and troughs. Cole looks around the emergency room. “Let’s get out of here,” he says. He checks his watch. With any luck they can still make last call.
About Jess Walter
Jess Walter is the author of six novels, most recently
The Financial Lives of the Poets
. He was a National Book Award finalist for
and winner of the Edgar Allan Poe Award for
. His books have been translated into twenty languages and his short fiction has appeared in
his work also appears in
The Best American Short Stories 2012.
He is the cocaptain (along with Sherman Alexie and Shann Ray) of the Spokane Dirty Realists literary basketball team.
By Luis Alberto Urrea
T SOUNDED LIKE
a vacation spot: Pelican Bay.
But it was the opposite of that and Joey’s dad was going to be spending the next thirty-five years there in a cage. He’d left all his shit behind, and Joey spent his free hours in the garage, sorting it out. Free hours—what a laugh. Most of his hours were free. That was part of the problem, though Joey knew his real job was keeping Moms afloat. When his dad went down, Moms got a tattoo right on her collarbone:
. She cried alone when she thought Joey wasn’t listening. Crying and the clinking of ice in her highball glass—Joey’s lullaby.