Love and basketball
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.
I began to stop by without an excuse. He would invite me into the kitchen, offer me a seat, and call his wife, a willowy woman with a Pall Mall voice and a nimbus of purple-tinted hair. In all the years I sat at her kitchen table I would never see her smile, but I knew she appreciated my visits because her eyebrows rose just a smidgen when she saw me. She allowed herself no other expression of delight.
While she prepared a snack for me, she’d say things about the old man, how he spent too much time at the bar downtown, or how he hadn’t made himself a meal in thirty years. The old man, defenseless against the charges but defiant nonetheless, would then direct a comment at me about her subpar cooking or the better company offered him by the men who drank at the Legion Club. Eventually she’d retire to the living room and her rocking chair and cigarettes and crossword puzzles, and the old man would start in on stories about serving in the Marines during World War II. He’d been at the invasion of Iwo Jima, had seen things he would never forget — ghastly things, his buddies blown apart by machine-gun fire, men bleeding to death in the mud, crying like little girls. For a moment his eyes got real spooky. Then he leaned close to me and talked in a conspiratorial hush about the whore he’d met in the Philippines, how she was by far the most thrilling woman he’d ever known, despite the fact that she couldn’t speak English.
She was fluent in the language of love, he whispered.
He laughed and winked at me. My face burned, and the rest of me felt twitchy, as if tickled by invisible hands.
Our entanglement was already sort of weird, and would get much weirder, but its most peculiar feature was in place from the beginning, the sort of detail you could never get away with in a short story. I’d only gotten to know him because we’d been forced to move to town — and he was the man who’d forced our move to town. More than a decade earlier, he’d extended my father a loan to buy equipment and seeds and rent a small corn and soybean farm about three miles east of Currie; he was, therefore, the same old man who’d signed off on the decision to close the books on the loan, ending my family’s little experiment in the Jeffersonian dream. My father found work at a hardware store, my mother in an optometry clinic, and we rented a little house in Currie — just a short walk from the old man’s place.
We lived there less than two years before the landlord told us he wanted us gone. This time I hoped we’d move to some other part of the country entirely, but in fact we only moved fifteen miles to Tracy, the town where my parents worked and I went to school — a railroad town, population two thousand, through which the train still ran. When my father broke the news, he accentuated the positive by telling me I wouldn’t have to ride the school bus for an hour in the morning anymore. I could use the extra time to sleep in.
I didn’t care about sleeping in. Being closer to a school I hated was no prize; I wanted to be gone. I’d read enough of a certain kind of book — the dime-store western — to begin to understand that in America you moved on from failure by moving on down the road. I was, by all appearances, an unremarkable kid, thin and bespectacled, an untutored country boy lacking the native toughness of your typical untutored country boy. Most of my clothes were hand-me-downs from my uncles, a bit frayed at the hems, never quite the right fit. In the school lunch line I used a special ticket, blue instead of green, that signified my family’s “low-income” status. I was what you might call white trash of the northern variety — a little cleaner than the average sample — and these class markers shadowed my school days and inflamed in me an anger born of shame. I wanted to move someplace where no one knew me, where the stink of my family’s failure might be misidentified as an exotic cologne.
When I told the old man we were leaving Currie, he looked as if he might cry.
He told me he felt lucky we were friends. A man reaches an age when he doesn’t think he’ll make new friends, and the ones he has start dying. Your world starts shrinking. That’s why he loved me so much. I was something apart from all that.
I didn’t know what to say, so said nothing. As he walked me to the door he opened his wallet and studied it for a moment. Then he plucked a bill and slipped it in my pants pocket. He cupped my cheeks in the palms of his hands.
Stop and visit sometime, he said. It would mean a lot to me.
He bent forward and kissed me on the lips, almost the way my grandmother did, but not quite.
I waited until I reached the end of the block to look at what he’d given me. I’d never seen Ulysses S. Grant on a piece of money before. It was the crispest bill I’d ever touched, and I held on to it for a few weeks — fondling it in the privacy of my bedroom, sniffing the exotic, newly minted fragrance of it — before I worked up the nerve to use it for a can of Dr Pepper and a box of Little Debbie snack cakes at a convenience store in Tracy. The lady behind the counter looked at me strangely when I gave it to her. She held it up to the light and studied it. I tried hard to look nonchalant, as if I was a regular spender of big bills.
Every Sunday my family drove back to Currie for mass at Immaculate Heart of Mary church. With my hair slicked back and one of my uncles’ castoff ties knotted at my neck, I led the way down the outside aisle, beneath the stained-glass renderings of the stations of the cross, to the very first pew. I hated being on display to the entire congregation, with nothing to look at but the lectern and the altar — no distractions but the backs of the altar boys’ heads, and dandruff like a sprinkle of sea salt on the collars of their robes. Sometimes I was one of them, which made the service pass more quickly. Otherwise I found it a kind of mental and physical torture. The pews were built not for comfort but for penance, and Jesus seemed nearly as remote as the moon — an icon on a cross, back of the altar and high on the wall, way too good to be true from the stories I’d been told.
After church we ate breakfast with my father’s cousins and their friends at the café downtown. I’d inhale my meal and excuse myself to play pool in the bowling alley next door, or bowl on the eight-lane alley where the chrome ashtrays still held mounds of butts from the night before. Months of Sundays passed this way, until I got to thinking about the old man and his money, how I missed both it and him, his smile, his friendliness, his curiosity about me. He’d spoken to me as an adult, and I hadn’t found a replacement for that — wouldn’t for some time to come — and I certainly hadn’t found a replacement for his gifts of cash.
It took me a while to work up the nerve, but eventually I asked my parents whether I could walk up to the old man’s house and pay him a visit. I didn’t want them to know about all the money he’d given me; until then I’d thought it best not to mention him. Now I lied and said that when we’d lived in Currie, he’d come over to the park a couple of times to give me pointers on my jump shot. I wanted to drop in and tell him thanks because his advice had helped.
Before my mother granted permission, she took me aside and cautioned me about the old man’s drinking. She’d been a bartender at the municipal liquor store when money got tight on the farm, until the night she was threatened with a pool cue, after which my father made her quit — but not before she’d learned the drink of choice for everyone in town. She told me the old man had been such a lush that his liver had begun to fail. He was in the hospital for months. Everyone assumed he was a goner. For a few years he’d stopped drinking, but my mother had heard he was back at it, despite a warning from the doctors. If I suspected him of being drunk on a Sunday morning, she wanted to be the first to know.
Blackberry brandy, she said. That was his thing. Terrible stuff, sweet as cough syrup.
If she was hoping to warn me off, she could not have failed more completely. News of the old man’s drinking habit only made him more intriguing and mysterious, more of the bad guy I hoped to become one day. I was deep into a phase of adolescent reinvention meant to scrub any trace of the child I’d been. Growing up on a farm had taught me many things, first among them the fact that I wasn’t cut out to be a farmer. Ten minutes in the granary or the hayloft had been sufficient to trigger my asthma. My tractor-driving lessons had ended in shame when I smashed into the Quonset hut my first time alone behind the wheel. Castrating pigs with my father had left me nauseated: there was just no way that slicing the testicles off a screaming hog was ever going to fall within my comfort zone.
Moving to Currie had revealed to me a previously untapped talent for juvenile delinquency: egging old ladies’ cars in the church parking lot, sipping Black Velvet in the woods by the river. Moving to Tracy only expanded my opportunities for mischief. My newest friend, Troy, was the youngest son of the couple who owned the Red Owl. I bagged groceries there with him in the evenings after school, and every once in a while he dipped into the safe for money to buy a fifth of vodka from one of his older brother’s friends. Sometimes I’d stay the night at his place, and since his parents traveled a lot we were given ample opportunity to test our skill at drinking games while AC/DC roared on the stereo, the sound track of my life in those years, along with Ratt and Black Sabbath.
This was around the time my parents got deep into Amway, and my father became convinced that he could both honor God and become filthy rich. In the mail he received magazines resembling some weird adult yearbook filled with head shots of smiling couples, the photos arranged in groups by the level their subjects had obtained within the Amway hierarchy. The levels were named after jewels — ruby, sapphire, on up to diamond — and in the companion text many of the couples told heartwarming tales of their emergence from bankruptcy and marital strife through the simple miracle of selling household cleaning products to family and friends, who were then recruited to sell household cleaning products to their family and friends. No tales of hardship appeared but those of hardship overcome. My father had met a bunch of diamond-level big shots at Amway meetings, and he was understandably taken with their lifestyles: the fancy cars, the backyard pools, the very real diamonds glittering on the women’s ears and fingers. I’d often find long lists of names on the kitchen table, local couples to whom he meant to “show the plan” and eventually “sponsor into the family,” creating a downline of distributors who would make him and his upline sponsors millionaires. He listened to motivational speakers on tape whenever we drove very far in the car, men — never women — preaching the Amway gospel, and boiled to its essence the message was this: if you turned your life over to the Risen Lord Jesus Christ, then He would watch over you, becoming in the process both your savior and your friend. People who developed a personal bond with Him were pretty much destined to become rich, as long as they cultivated a wealth mentality. Bringing people into the Amway fold was similar to what the apostles had been up to a couple thousand years earlier, trolling for souls to save, but now instead of turning away from material things the faithful were encouraged to embrace them. Amway — short for American Way — was the very embodiment of the American dream, and it was no secret that Jesus loved America more than any other nation on earth. On long car trips to Amway “family reunions,” we listened to a band called the Goads, who put the Amway message to music in songs such as “I Heard It Through My Upline” (set to the tune of Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”) and “I’m Going Diamond” (a rip-off of the Pointer Sisters’ “I’m So Excited”).
Back when we’d lived on the farm, my parents had listened to Sly and the Family Stone, Fleetwood Mac, the Beach Boys — music unheard in our house any longer, unless I put it on the turntable myself. They’d once hosted parties where all their friends got drunk and said funny things and played volleyball barefoot while wearing their hats at goofy angles. They were young, and it was the Seventies, but now the Seventies were over. Reagan had proclaimed morning in America, and the parties had stopped. Hangovers were no longer cool in this new dawn. My parents had even parted with their copy of The Joy of Sex, my favorite book of the hundred or so we owned, half of them Louis L’Amour novels. I mostly blamed Amway for the loss of everything fun and attractive in their lives. Now it was all work and church and boring sitcoms on the boob tube after dinner. I’d overheard one of my skeptical relatives call Amway a cleverly designed pyramid scheme built on a foundation of Christian sanctimony. Those words gave me the courage I needed to take a stand. With money I made bagging groceries at the Red Owl, I became a brand fanatic. I bought Crest toothpaste and Tide detergent and did my laundry separately from the rest of the family’s, to avoid using Amway products. This pointless insurrection left my father baffled. If I needed some token way of asserting my individuality, he said, then fine. Go for it. Waste your money on Tide.
Maybe my parents hoped my friendly interest in the old man meant my personality wasn’t entirely deformed by pubescent angst, as it must have appeared to them it was, not untruthfully. Maybe they thought my spending time with him would reveal to me the glories of becoming rich, and I would see the logic of their longing for upward mobility. In reality I doubt they thought much about it at all, concerned as they were about a whole host of other problems in their lives, not least the strain of money worries on their marriage. Whatever their reasons, they gave their blessing for me to walk the five blocks from the café to the old man’s house each Sunday morning, while they gossiped with my father’s cousins over hash browns and eggs. They agreed to pick me up when they finished breakfast, but they never entered the old man’s house. They signaled from the driveway with a honk of the horn.
We followed the same routine each Sunday. His wife poured me a glass of juice and a mug of instant hot cocoa. She made scrambled eggs and bacon while the old man asked what was new in my life. One time, when his wife left the kitchen, he started teasing me about girls.
A young buck like you must have them lined up three-deep, just dying to be asked out, he said. You must have to fight them off with a stick.
I blushed, as much with shame as anything. As far as I could tell, no girls were interested in me. He said that was the impression girls liked to give. I had to show interest in them, and they’d reciprocate.
I’d bet half my life savings you won’t be a virgin next year, he said, not with those eyes. Unless you’ve already taken care of that.
He winked at me.
Once you get your driver’s license, he said, I’m sure it won’t be long before your backseat is covered in pecker tracks.
I looked at my eggs and tried not to think about being a virgin. I had no clue when I’d join the ranks of the premarital fornicators, or with whom, nor could I imagine what pecker tracks were. The girl on whom I had a secret crush had caught me, in one of our classes together, picking my scalp to form a little snowdrift of dandruff on my desk. She told me it was the grossest thing she’d ever seen. I can only guess how gross she would have found my masturbatory fantasies of her finding me in the bathtub, my hands bound behind my back, a tiny washcloth covering my erect cock — her plaything, to do with as she pleased, and indeed she pleased in these fantasies, again and again, the naughty little nympho. But then the fantasy was over and the bathwater was cold, and I’d climb out of the tub and confront in the mirror a face speckled with ever-shifting constellations of pimples. It seemed beyond the realm of the possible that any girl would kiss me if her chin were forced to make contact with mine.
A horn sounded in the driveway, the family car. The old man helped me put my coat on, real chivalrous-like, while I held out my arms. The chivalry lasted roughly three seconds. As I zipped up the coat, he slipped his hand in my pants pocket. It lingered there longer than was required to leave a bill.
You got a banana tucked away down there? he asked. His eyes brightened behind his thick glasses, and he laughed. You carrying a concealed weapon?
I pushed his hand away. The bill dropped on the floor. He bent to pick it up, and I slipped out the door before he could try again.
As we drove away, I saw him standing at the window, watching.
For several Sundays I stayed away. I replayed the scene in memory, wondering what it could mean. Probably nothing, I thought — a joke I didn’t quite get. Then I lost interest in that question. My mind kept coming back to the sight of that bill falling out of my pocket. I couldn’t be sure, but I thought I’d glimpsed the face of Ben Franklin.
When I knocked on his door a few weeks later, he gave me a hug like nothing had ever happened.
I underwent two rites of passage the year I turned 16: I earned my driver’s license and undertook confirmation in the Catholic faith. Getting my license was easy. Beginning the confirmation process was not. I couldn’t remember a time when I’d believed in God. I hadn’t confessed this to anyone. My parents would’ve been scandalized by my lack of faith. In religious matters I had no choice but to pretend to agree with them, but I’d been instructed to pray to God so many times over the years, for so many things that never came to pass — rain for the crops, higher prices for the crops, a glut of converts to the Amway family — that I’d long since grown tired of the Lord’s noncompliance with our needs. I found it more comforting to believe God didn’t exist than to think He might actively wish to thwart us, or just didn’t have time for us, so I’d become a secret atheist, convinced that all the stories we were told each Sunday were basically Grimm’s fairy tales for adults, another phrase copped from a skeptical relative. I sat sullenly in the first pew, mouthed the hymns and prayers, and dreamed about the girls who’d reveal to me the mystery of pecker tracks once I became a basketball star with a clear complexion.
To undergo the confirmation process I first had to pick a mentor, someone who would lead me into an adult relationship with the Risen Lord Jesus Christ, and the thought made me sick with dread, all the hours of boring Bible study, the contorted poses of false piety. I considered my options for several weeks, but every plausible candidate was either too fervent a believer or too close a friend to my parents. I wanted a sponsor I could be myself around, someone who wouldn’t make me put on a show of faith. If I knew anyone I could count on to be irreverent when reverence was called for, it was the old man. Even better, he’d probably give me money just for showing up.
When I told my parents, they made halfhearted protests about his age. They said I ought to choose someone younger, someone more involved in the activities of the church. I pointed out that he was the most generous donor to Immaculate Heart of Mary — the church treasurer handed out a booklet once a year, listing how much each family gave, to shame everyone into giving more — and he went to mass every Saturday evening with his wife. Since the whole process involved me becoming an adult in the eyes of God, and if they and God trusted me to take that step, why wouldn’t they trust me to choose my own sponsor?
At our first meeting, the old man led me to the family room in his basement. We sat at a small table, and he handed me a stapled photocopy of the Baltimore Catechism. He said I should read it, and we’d talk about it when I came back the next week.
Do you really think I need to? I said. I’d rather talk about the Baltimore Orioles. I don’t care about any of this. I’m only doing it to make my parents happy. I don’t even believe in God. I never have.
Come on now, you have to believe in God, he said.
Well, I have no idea what I’m doing, he said. That’s the only thing I could think of.
He sat in silence for a moment.
If I ask you something, he said, will you promise it doesn’t leave this room?
How would you like to have a beer?
We never again mentioned the Father, the Son, or the Holy Ghost. We didn’t strategize about how I might squeeze my soul through the pearly gates into the garden of life everlasting. The only ritual we honored involved the lifting of our cans of beer in mutual salute before the first sip. I couldn’t believe how lucky I’d been, choosing him as my sponsor — my sponsor in the Church of Old Milwaukee. I came up with that one, and he laughed so hard his wife must have wondered.
One night, after a few too many sacramental slugs of beer, I told him I’d finally found a girl who was interested in me. I’d met her at a friend’s birthday party. Her older brother played varsity basketball, and she’d noticed me at a couple of games, playing on the JV squad. She lived in the town just east of Tracy. She enlisted a friend of hers to tell me that if I asked her to the Snow Dance that winter, her answer would be yes. We’d been going steady ever since. Her parents wouldn’t let me take her out on a real date until she turned fifteen, so we watched movies on the Betamax at her house and counted down the weeks.
The old man wanted to know if she’d given me a blow job. I told him that was between me and her. He gave me a nudge with his elbow and said, Come on, just between friends, but I stayed mum. I felt very protective toward her. She was the second girl I’d ever kissed, and that was still as far as we’d gone.
He said, You know, I’m 67 years old and I’ve never stuck my pecker in a woman’s mouth. My wife wouldn’t let me. Not that I didn’t try. Jesus, I tried. You know something else? We haven’t had sex in eight years. I doubt we’ll ever have sex again. I envy you, buddy. You’ve got all the good stuff ahead of you.
I drained my beer in one long gulp and went to the fridge for another. I’d never heard an adult talk this way. Sex was a subject utterly off-limits in our house. My mother had knocked on my bedroom door the previous year, thrust a pamphlet into my hand, and said, You should read this. It was called “A Christian Guide to Sexuality,” and after scanning it for the dirty parts and finding none, I tossed it in the back of my closet.
I felt bad for the old man. It hadn’t occurred to me that anyone over the age of about 40 still felt sexual desire. Trying to picture him acting on it made me think of some freak carnival act.
Every Wednesday night I tried to steer the conversation to other subjects, things we’d talked about before — the budding greatness of Minnesota’s favorite athlete, Kirby Puckett; the old man’s memories of World War II; the oratorical genius of Ronald Reagan — but he mainly wanted to talk about my girlfriend’s tight little virgin pussy. He wanted to know whether I’d licked it. He wanted to know how it tasted, how it smelled, how many fingers I could fit inside of it.
Another thing I’m curious about, he said, after a couple of beers. The size of that pecker of yours.
He reached for my crotch. This was the first time a hand not my own had gone there since I’d been in diapers. Not even my girlfriend had been so bold, not yet.
Feels like you’ve got a nice package, he said. What, seven inches? Eight? Oh, come on, every guy has measured it. Anyone who says he hasn’t is a liar.
I was horrified to think he knew I’d measured my own cock. After a few seconds of dumbfounded silence, the words blurted out of me: It’s nine inches, if you want to know. A lot bigger than what you’ve got, I’m sure.
His eyelids quivered weirdly. Nine? he said. You’re shitting me.
Of course I was, but I finished my beer as if I hadn’t heard him, crushed the empty in my hands. He followed me up the basement steps.
I’m sorry, he said. That was wrong of me.
He was whispering so his wife wouldn’t hear. He fumbled for his wallet and pulled out a bill.
Keep your money, I said.
I tried to knock his hand away, but he thrust it into my coat pocket.
I know you need it, he said. I want to help. We’re buddies. Buddies help each other, right?
Sure, I said. Buddies help each other.
It was an easy thing to say with a hundred-dollar bill in my pocket.
The next week we resumed our worship at the Church of Old Milwaukee. He kept his hands to himself, but he still wanted to talk about sex. He began by asking if I liked to masturbate. When I didn’t answer, he started reciting all the euphemisms he knew: choking the chicken, spanking the wanker, pounding the flounder, tickling the pickle, tweaking the Twinkie, wiggling the walrus, petting the pink pony. Most of these I’d never heard. He got me laughing so hard I nearly cried.
He said, I remember being your age, having blue balls like you wouldn’t believe. I wanted to stick my pecker in anything that moved. The girls were different back then. They wouldn’t let you go so far so fast.
He said I was lucky to be born when I was, after the creation of the pill and the heyday of the women’s libbers.
He was more subtle the next time he put his hand on me. I had told him a joke or a funny story, and we were both laughing. He gave my thigh a squeeze like he had in years past, when we’d sat on his lawn together, him drinking beer, me drinking Coke. I let it set there; it seemed unthreatening enough, until it began to slide toward my groin.
How many inches is that pecker of yours again? he asked.
Ten, I said.
I thought you said nine.
I told him I’d remeasured it, just to be sure, and I found it had grown. He surely knew I was bullshitting, but he didn’t call me on it. I felt a tremendous power in the lie, as if, under circumstances in which he thought he could get away with anything, I could too. I let his hand creep up until it crossed some imaginary line separating friendliness from creepiness. Then I pushed it away.
Each Wednesday night, as I drove the fifteen miles to the old man’s house, I felt an adrenalized anticipation, not unlike the feeling I had when I drove to pick up my girlfriend for a date, thinking all the while of what we’d do in the backseat of my dad’s car. We’d tell our parents we were going to dinner and a movie in a college town thirty miles away, but we’d pick up some food at McDonald’s, go to the early show, and find a quiet place in the country to park and make out. Or we’d have dinner at the Happy Chef but skip the movie to leave enough time to park and make out. I felt an intoxicating power in our shared ability to deceive our parents, but I never knew how far she’d let me go. That decision was hers and hers alone, and I always felt ashamed when she told me to stop. I didn’t want to stop.
With the old man, I knew the basic outlines too. I’d tell my parents we were making progress on my study of the ways of the Lord, but instead we’d drink a few beers, and I’d get a nice buzz. He’d ask about sex, maybe try to get his hands on me, and before I left he would give me some money — a twenty, a fifty, a hundred. The decision about how far he was allowed to go was mine and mine alone, and I sometimes wondered whether he felt ashamed when I told him to stop. I knew he didn’t want to stop. I also knew I was stronger and could probably fend him off if I had to. With his wife just up the stairs, I figured he wouldn’t try anything too crazy. I never thought of telling anyone. To have ratted him out, after all, would have meant giving up his money. And that was something I could not do.
The Red Owl closed when a new corporate grocery moved to Tracy, so I took a job at the town bakery, frying donuts and bagging bread in the middle of the night. With the money I was earning I bought a used car on payments, an ’82 Buick Regal, maroon, two-door. My new wheels allowed me to go out on the weekends without asking permission for the family ride. I spent my weekends water-skiing with friends at the lake, taking my girlfriend out with my own money, drinking beer and vodka on the sly. Everything interesting going on in my life was going on without my parents having a clue about it. I wanted to keep it that way. It made me feel grown-up to have a secret life. What happened between me and the old man was just one more thing I filed under the heading of secrets, although of course it unsettled me in a way my other secrets did not. I wondered what kind of person aroused such feelings in an old man, what his attentions said about me. Had he judged me impure and corruptible? Had I given him reason to suspect I was game for whatever it was he had in mind?
During our last month of confirmation meetings, at a time when I was supposed to be drawing near to the numinous embrace of the Holy Trinity, he tried every time to grope me, and every time I swatted his hand away. It became as much a ritual as our three cans of Old Milwaukee apiece. During our last meeting, just before I was to be confirmed with my classmates in a ceremony before the whole church, he tried with particular insistence to cop a feel while simultaneously straining for a kiss in the manner of the French. It was a terrible thing to see, the purple, swollen tongue of an alcoholic old man; it made me ashamed to be human. I knocked him away with a punch to the chest, a punch as hard as I could throw. He slumped in a corner of the couch, wounded. There were tears in his eyes, whether from pain or thwarted longing I wasn’t sure.
I bet you’d love it if I pulled out my cock and let you touch it, I said.
He looked at the floor and shook his head, one hand holding his chest.
Shit, I bet you’d even pay me if I let you suck it. How much would that be worth? A hundred? Two hundred?
He didn’t look at me, didn’t say a thing.
I climbed the basement stairs and listened in vain for him to follow with his wallet open.
My confirmation was complete.
That summer, in addition to working nights at the bakery, I coached rec-league baseball for grade-school kids. Three afternoons a week we played in Tracy; two days a week we played next to the cemetery behind Immaculate Heart of Mary in Currie, where I still joined my family every Sunday for mass. No one ever came to watch — no one, that is, except the old man. Two of his grandkids sometimes played, but even if they didn’t show up, the old man did. He parked his car under the big shade trees along the right field line. He never got out, just sat there staring through the lightly tinted windows of his Cadillac. When he’d watched me shoot hoops in the town park he’d made me feel important, but now I feared other people would notice his interest in me. I no longer felt important. I felt hunted.
When he called me over after the games to say hello, I kept the conversation short. The old man looked wistful every time I said goodbye. By the time I picked up the equipment and drove out of town, his Cadillac would be parked at the American Legion Club or the municipal bar, his usual afternoon haunts.
To be told never to drink again or risk death — and yet go right on drinking — seemed, to my adolescent mind, a gesture of heedless heroism; no matter what else he did, I respected him for that. My friends and I had entered into a pact by which we agreed to give our girlfriends only one night a weekend of our precious company. We spent the other in a hunt for beer or vodka or whiskey, peppermint schnapps or Mad Dog 20/20, whatever we could get our hands on. Our search for booze represented the most exciting and agonizing hours of the week. We couldn’t be certain we’d meet with success, which only made the quest more tantalizing. A few old boozers we knew bought liquor for us if we sprang for their night’s drink too, but we couldn’t always track them down when we needed them.
Once, in desperation, I stopped by the old man’s house and begged him for a case of Old Milwaukee. At first he refused.
I don’t want to be responsible if you do something stupid, he said. You wreck your car and kill someone, I’ll have that on my conscience forever. I could go to jail.
I pestered and pleaded, promised that my friends and I would choose a designated driver — a lie, of course, since all of us always drank — until the old man led me downstairs and opened his fridge. I tucked cans of beer in every pocket I had, inside my socks, under my armpits. His wife sat in her customary place in the living room, obliviously sucking on a Pall Mall.
I mean it now. You guys be careful. I’d hate myself if something happened to you. You’re the best friend I’ve got left in the whole world.
He leaned in. I turned my cheek. He hugged me, nuzzling his stubbled jaw against the flesh beneath my ear, running one hand slowly south of my lower back. I closed my eyes and let him savor for a moment these affections, figuring they were a reasonable trade for the beer.
The guys are waiting, I said. We’ll raise a toast to you at the lake.
Don’t ever forget who’s your old buddy, he said.
Two or three times after that, when we couldn’t rustle up beer from our regular buyers, I dropped in on the old man. He was always reluctant, always gave in. He did his best to make me feel guilty for only stopping by when I needed beer. He wished I’d stay awhile, so we could sit around and drink a couple of cold ones like we used to.
Down at the bar, he said, it’s the same conversation for the last twenty years.
My dreams of basketball glory were dashed my junior year, when I underwent surgery on my left knee. Just as I was supposed to be coming into my own, a starter on the varsity, I was relegated to the end of the bench, where I moped in street clothes. My name wasn’t appearing in the local paper, but that didn’t hurt as much as the fact that my shot at a scholarship appeared to be slipping away. I couldn’t think of another way out, couldn’t think of what to become.
What I became, more by default than design, was a solitary drinker. Alcohol made the world glow again, for a little while. I’d steal some sloe gin from my grandparents’ cupboard when we went to see them in Iowa, or I’d ask one of my buyers for a fifth of vodka. I’d sneak into the kitchen after dinner and smuggle some orange juice mixer back to my room while the rest of the family watched television. I’d listen to the latest in hair metal through my headphones — Cinderella, Whitesnake — and drink until the room began to spin, and after a few hours of sleep my alarm would ring to wake me for work at the bakery, where I was expected by 3 AM. Driving through the empty streets in the middle of the night, my tongue like sandpaper, my eyes bloodshot, I felt solitary and dangerous and more than likely doomed, capable of just about anything, a man without a future — an adolescent, in other words, with a really nasty hangover.
Once, just to see whether I could get away with it, I called the old man and told him a vague story about a friend of mine who was in a jam and needed $300 by the end of the week. The old man asked why my friend needed the money. I told him I couldn’t say but assured him it was nothing illegal. He said to meet him at the bank, where he’d left his checkbook.
His office was on the second floor. A glass window made up one whole wall overlooking Mill Street. He sat behind a big oak desk. I sat in a small chair opposite. He clearly knew how to work power dynamics with office furniture. I was learning how to work them with sexual unavailability. The air in the room was electric with manipulation. We both knew the score, both knew what the other wanted, but only one of us was going to get it.
For a moment I had an eerie sensation of déjà vu, except I was reliving a scene not from my own life but from my father’s, asking for a loan from a man who, with a few strokes of his pen, had the power to relieve anyone in the county of his money worries, for a little while anyway. Given that he’d been the one to put an end to our life on the farm, I can see how the old man may have pitied me on our first meeting. He’d pulled the plug on the only life my father had imagined for himself, the family calling for a century, and I doubt he felt very pleased about it. The bank of which he was president and chief loan officer had lost money on us, and my father had lost everything he’d ever cared about. Maybe those first $20 bills were the old man’s way of saying, if not to me then perhaps to himself, I’m sorry about what happened — a guilt offering of sorts.
Then again, maybe knowing my family’s finances from the inside out, he’d calculated that cash was the way to keep me coming back, again and again. I later wondered whether I was unique — whether his impulses were something he’d ever acted on when he was coaching boys’ basketball all those years, or whether he’d kept it to himself, or even whether he’d had the impulse at all when he was younger and more of a man. I don’t know. But I guess I find it hard to believe I was the only one.
He slid a check across the desk. I thanked him for it, told him my friend would pay him back, via me, as soon as he was able. Which, we both surely knew, was going to be never.
All these years, he said, and you’ve never come to see me here. I’m glad you finally did. There’s something I want to give you.
The look on his face went from solemn to sassy in a heartbeat. He opened a drawer and produced a mass-market paperback with brittle yellow pages. A woman with heavy lavender eyeshadow and a lascivious, half-open mouth looked up from the cover. Xaviera on The Best Part of a Man, it said above the picture, and below it: Author of The Happy Hooker. The woman was the writer, the Dutch prostitute Xaviera Hollander.
An old friend gave that to me years ago, he said. It’s the kind of book that ought to be shared. There’s some pretty racy stuff in there. Even a stud like you might learn a few things.
I knew I’d appear ungrateful if I took the one thing — his money — and not the other, so I picked up the book and flipped the pages, trying to look interested.
I’ll be curious to know what you think of it, he said.
I told him I’d let him know, though I had no intention of reading his kinky little book.
Out in my car I studied the check, giddy with greed. The memo line read: Loan.
Curiosity eventually got the better of me, and I read that kinky little book straight through to the end. As the title indicated, it was a paean to the penis, and while certain parts of it aroused the best part of me, I would’ve preferred a book about the best part of a woman. The passage that turned me on more than any other involved an orgy during which half-set Jell-O was inserted into a woman’s vagina with a turkey baster and then sucked out by three men with straws, producing, for the woman, a phenomenal orgasm. I petted the pink pony with the book open to those pages more times than I’d care to admit.
My senior year of basketball, like so much else in my life at the time, turned out to be a disappointment. I never made good on the promise I’d shown when I was younger, although I had my moments. I’d spent thousands of hours honing the mechanics of my twenty-foot jumper until it was one fluid motion, as natural as walking or lifting food to my mouth. Left open for a couple of seconds, I was deadly from three-point range. There were games in which no one had any chance of stopping me. Then there were others in which I missed a few early shots, became frustrated, and flailed. I’d sat out an entire season. I was trying to make up for lost time. All my angst was forgotten during those moments when I seemed to float just above the action, able to see everything a fraction of a second before it happened. They were, in the end, too few.
My finest game came against our rivals from Balaton, the nearest neighboring school. I remember bursting out of the locker room for warm-ups, the smell of popcorn in the air, the gym overheated by the bodies of several hundred fans. As we ran through our opening drill, in which the team would sprint single-file and each player would leap and bounce the ball off the backboard at the moment of full extension, I happened to see, amid the faces in the crowd, the old man. He was leaning forward, elbows on his knees, watching me. I felt the old thrill of having an audience of one, and the adrenaline in my blood made my knees tremble. During the playing of the national anthem on the loudspeakers I closed my eyes and held my hand over my heart, trying to calm its thumping. When the song was over I opened my eyes and saw the old man staring at me. He raised his arm and clenched his fist in my direction.
From the moment of tip-off I was feeling it. The jumper was on, the X-ray vision intact. When crowded or double-teamed, I threaded the needle with fancy bounce passes, or spun away to tiptoe the baseline on quicksilver drives to the hoop, dishing or scoring at will. The game was close until late, when I went on one last scoring spree that sealed the deal, finishing one point shy of thirty.
After it was over and we’d slapped hands with our opponents, I saw the old man lingering in the bleachers. I couldn’t help myself. I still wanted his approval. I walked toward his smile like a moth to a flame.
Jesus, buddy, that was something else, he said, clasping my hand.
You showed up for the right game, I said. And then, knowing it would please him, I added: This one was for you.
He wrapped me in a bear hug, kissed me on the cheek. I looked over his shoulder to see whether anyone was watching us, but no one seemed to notice.
For a while I stayed away after the bit with the so-called loan, but I couldn’t let that be the end. Like a junkie, I wanted my line of credit open; I was delusional enough to think he might even help me with college tuition when the time came. He’d hinted at the possibility more than once.
I stopped by his house one weekend unannounced, thinking he’d be happy to see me, thinking I’d score a bill. It was the middle of the afternoon, and the old man was drunk, reeking of brandy, slurring his words. His wife was away visiting her family in Iowa, so for the first and last time we sat in her domain, the living room. He said it was nice to have the place to himself. He could stay late at the bar if he wanted to, or drive up the road and visit one of his drinking buddies, a man his wife didn’t like him to see. Drinking had become not only his primary diversion but the ordering principle of his days. He spent less and less time at the bank, having ceded control to others. His back and hip were failing him. He moved awkwardly, gingerly, like a man breaking in a new prosthetic leg. For years he’d laid off cigarettes, but he lit one now. I grabbed the pack and took one too without asking.
You must be excited to graduate, he said. This is it. Your time has come.
Excited to get the hell out of here, I said.
He ignored me and played the pity card, as he had so many other times. He often said he was an old man with nothing left to look forward to, nothing but his friendship with me. Now he said he wished he were me. He wished he were in my shoes. Everything good was still ahead of me. He was just an old man creeping up on death, drinking the days away.
I confess I didn’t see the allure of my life. It felt like everything good was behind me, and I told him so. My basketball career was over. My girlfriend had dumped me, but not before we’d lost our virginity together. I was as heartbroken as only a recent novitiate in the joy of sex can be.
Forget about her, he said. You’ll go to college and get more ass than you know what to do with.
Not to mention my back, I said. It’s been killing me. I think it’s all that lifting at the bakery.
Why don’t you lie on the couch? he said. I’ll give you a little rub. You’ll feel a lot better.
I doubt I could have told you at the time why I let him do it, but from twenty-five years on the answer is as clear as day. This was one part of my life where I had the upper hand. In school and at home I was subject to rules devised by others. I thought I was an adult — the overnight job, the car — but no one treated me as one. So be it. The adult world was an elaborate sham anyway, a web of unspoken disappointments, outrageous hypocrisies, crooked desires of unaccountable origin. I wanted to punch a hole in that web, but if that wasn’t possible I could at least feel righteous while punching an old man.
He wasted no time getting to it. He worked with a firm tenderness. His hands moved lower and lower. There was no doubt about where he was headed. He began to get pretty cozy with the contours of my gluteus maximus. I tried not to flinch as he pressed himself against me. I felt his breath on the back of my neck, his lips tickle my ear. He had me in a spot where he could have held me down if he wanted to, the sudden thought of which sent a charge through my limbs. I twisted my torso and boxed him upside the head rather viciously with my elbow. He slipped off the couch and let out a shrill cry as he landed on the floor. It took all my willpower not to kick him in the ribs while he lay there, whimpering.
Before I left I made sure to grab some beer for the road.
Our story should have ended there. Soon I would graduate. The old man would officially retire, settle in for a jaundiced decline in the company of drink. His world was closing in. Mine was opening up.
I almost didn’t get out, though, and when I say almost I’m talking inches — literally twelve or fifteen inches from ending up dead or trapped in a long-term care facility, sucking watery Jell-O through a straw. A fairly simple story: a night of drinking with a friend, a twelve-pack apiece of Colt 45, a bank of fog, a telephone pole in a highway ditch, and just like that the money I’d sunk into my ’82 Regal was gone. The body folded up like an accordion, the windshield splintered. I paid a salvage yard the towing fee to take it off my hands and I wasn’t even done with the payments. I walked away with a sprained ankle and a few cuts on my forehead; the next morning I woke to a parental silence so arctic in its fury it made me wish I’d died. The mother of my drinking buddy happened to work for the county attorney, and feeling guilty that I’d dropped off her son at midnight and continued on my drunken way home, she finagled the charge down to reckless driving, alcohol-related, which saved me the money and trouble of a DWI.
Despite the many hours I’d spent admiring college catalogs from Tucson, Seattle, and Boulder, I experienced a failure of nerve in the end. I’d made a visit to a fancy Catholic college in St. Paul, where the Mercedes and BMWs of rich suburban kids gleamed in the dormitory parking lots, and was instantly transfixed by the limestone buildings honey-colored in the afternoon light, the ivied walls of the football stadium, coeds strolling with books in their arms across the fastidious lawns. I’d never seen so many girls in one place. The whole scene was like the previously missing, wide-angle prelude shot to the porno film I’d been writing, directing, and starring in every time I thought of what my college years would be. Even deeper in my reptilian brain I sensed a chance to learn how to be rich by living in proximity to rich kids, the old dream not yet dead. Here I could finally begin the process of reinventing myself as a man of debonair tastes and urbane manners, a prairie sophisticate with a fancy car. I learned that through a University of St. Thomas scholarship fund I stood to earn $3,500 per year for my high school GPA, class rank, and ACT score. This seemed a phenomenal sum, the equivalent of nearly six months of work at the mom-and-pop bakery where I was then making $3.80 an hour. If the sight of pretty girls and shiny cars had been the initial seduction, the promise of free cash clinched the deal. I didn’t for a moment acknowledge the fact that I was merely getting a discount on a very expensive product. Nor did I bother to imagine, given that my parents were in no position to help, where I’d come up with the remainder of the $15,000 per year I’d be charged for tuition, room, and board.
Needless to say, I was not the prototypical Tommy. I drove a 1970 Ford pickup of a pale green hue that earned it the nickname Phlegm. I arrived with $2,000 in savings from my job at the bakery, which bought me six heady weeks of Coors Light party balls and Mexican ditch weed. Over the next few years I borrowed exorbitantly while working all sorts of stupid jobs: painting houses, unloading package trailers at a UPS hub, frying donuts for a little shop in the suburbs. It was the same work I’d performed since I was 15, and I came to loathe the stupefying repetition of it, eight at night till three in the morning, five days a week, the clicking handle of the donut dropper, the pox-like burns on my hands from the splash of fryer oil. The way I smelled like a jelly-filled bismarck even after I’d showered.
I dropped out for lack of cash, worked three jobs, returned to school for a couple of years, dropped out broke again. When the friends I’d met as a freshman graduated to begin their careers in corporate finance and accounting, and my girlfriend left for a magazine job in New York, I mostly sat around drinking wine alone in the afternoons. I was as confused as I’d ever been, which is saying something. I’d sunk tens of thousands of dollars — much of it borrowed, some of it earned by my own labor, some of it a gift from my grandfather — into a journalism education, but my scholarship had been revoked when I didn’t finish my degree in four years. Internships at the Fargo Forum and Kiplinger’s Personal Finance Magazine had left me sour on the strictures of deadline hackery and service-mag pap. I didn’t want to be a cops and courts reporter; I didn’t want to be a mutual-fund guru, a blue-chip stock watcher. I wanted to be a novelist. Unfortunately, I didn’t know the first thing about writing a novel, and it was clear that even if I started tomorrow I’d be a long time in earning a dime from writing novels. I did what many before me have done in such circumstances: I became a bartender. This offered all the intellectual stimulation you’d imagine, which is to say none. The pleasures were other. I met party people. I drank on the job.
One night my telephone rang. It was the old man, of all people. He’d tracked down my home number. I never did learn how. The number was unconnected with my name, since I was living with my girlfriend’s gay uncle Charlie, who’d offered to put me up rent-free so I’d have time to write the great American novel, in compensation for which he merely asked that he appear, lightly fictionalized but still identifiable, as a demon lover with a giant cock in my great American novel. I’d overcome the residual homophobia of my Catholic boyhood by then, thanks in no small part to Charlie, whom I’m very happy to describe for posterity as one of the most generous people I’ve ever known, as well as a demon lover with an enormous and stunningly beautiful cock.
Anyway, the phone rang. I let the answering machine answer it. A familiar voice began speaking, haltingly. I knew right away he was drunk.
I picked up the phone.
Old buddy, he slurred. It’s been so long, so long I can hardly believe. I miss you.
Yeah, I said.
We used to be so close.
Sure, I said.
There’s no one around I like as much as you. I wish you’d call sometime. We could shoot the breeze like in the old days.
Right, I said.
Why don’t you call? I feel like you’ve abandoned me. Like you’ve turned your back on your old buddy —
I don’t care what you feel like. You know why I don’t call.
There was a pause on his end. Everything would have turned out differently if he’d made the right move at the end of that pause.
He did not make the right move.
He said he didn’t know what I was talking about. I offered some reminders. He said it was nothing but a lark, some innocent horseplay among friends. I told him I didn’t think it was innocent. He said I was a smart kid, mature for my age, I knew all along what was happening. I told him I knew exactly what had happened, he’d worked overtime on getting me to take his dirty dick in my mouth. He said he went to confession and told the priest everything, he was very sorry if he hurt me in any way, we were such good friends and he never meant to harm our friendship. I told him he wasn’t my friend, he was a creepy old man with a thing for underage boys. He said I was the one who’d led him on, if anyone was to blame it was me, and besides no one would believe my word against his.
That was another mistake.
Until the moment of that call, whenever I remembered the old man, I found myself tempted by the thought that we could have been friends, real friends, although we probably never were. I’m pretty sure we never were. I’m pretty sure he was plotting and scheming most of the time he knew me, plotting to get into my pants, until I finally caught on, after which it was me plotting to get into his wallet, as deep as I could get without breaking down and becoming his boy toy. It’s totally fucked, I know, but I nonetheless kept alive the thought that maybe we could have found a way to get beyond all that. I see now I was being willfully naive, perhaps even fetishizing the power of forgiveness, that cornerstone of the Catholic faith, along with its partner confession. I had needed an alternate narrative to the way things turned out; the other, more plausible alternative, the one in which I became his boy toy, was too much to contemplate. I had managed to convince myself that he’d taught me a lot of things a person ought to know — about the persistence of desire, the allure of youth, the heartbreaking frailty and mind-boggling confusion of human relations, priceless lessons really, unintentional though they may have been. I hadn’t had to spend years in therapy. I never tried to kill myself for the shame. Countless Catholic kids had it far worse than me, unspeakably worse, in the realm of predatory sex. The newspapers were beginning to tell their stories, and they were awful beyond imagining, the ritual acts of sadism, the damaged lives. Mine was the world’s sweetest love story by comparison.
In practical terms, his example — the first such of my life — made me reluctant to pursue my sexual attractions with any gusto, which prevented my college years from becoming the sexual smorgasbord they were for a lot of my contemporaries. I had seen a man’s face contorted by lust unconsummated — I’m talking up close and personal — and it was not a pretty sight. A smoldering passivity became my style, and a tendency toward long-term serial monogamy with women who made the first move. Which, when I thought about it later, may have been a blessing, considering the kind of woman with whom this involved me, typically horny and radiant with self-confidence, the kind of woman you want to remain a friend even after you split.
Once he blamed me, though, all bets were off. It was time at long last to make him pay — really pay, this time in the currency of fear.
If I could be said to have accomplished one momentous thing in my abortive undergraduate career — and it’s a bit of a stretch to say any such thing — it was to have unearthed, as editor of the campus newspaper, the existence of a lawsuit against the recently retired dean of students, who was accused of initiating unwanted intimacies with a male undergrad he’d counseled decades earlier. This was news, no doubt about it — the school paying the ex-dean’s legal fees, the presence of a high-profile lawyer for the plaintiff — a story altogether more consequential than the paper’s typical offering, which plumbed the tension between hard-partying undergrads and neighborhood residents whose lawns were watered with urine most weekend nights. By the end of my reporting I’d come to have doubts about the validity of the charges — the alleged crime was almost three decades old, a “recovered memory,” and the plaintiff seemed a sad sack on a fishing expedition — but the story proved useful to me now.
I picked up a copy of the paper, a whole semester’s worth of which was neatly stacked in a cardboard box close at hand, and began to read from the story in question. The lead was classic inverted-pyramid newspaper style, sober and precise, the who-what-why-when-where up front: Former Dean of Students William Malevich is accused of sexually exploiting and abusing a student he counseled from 1966 to 1967, according to a civil lawsuit filed in Ramsay County District Court.
I told the old man that, insofar as our situation was concerned, the dean’s guilt or innocence was beside the point. The point was, I still had a copy of the lawsuit. It was all just boilerplate. It would be so easy to swap my name for the accuser’s, his name for the accused. I asked him if the name Jeff Anderson rang a bell. No? He was the plaintiff’s lawyer and he knew what he was doing. Case by case he was revealing the Catholic Church to be one big pedophile protection racket. Maybe the name James Porter was familiar. Yeah? The priest who was taken to the tune of $5 million for abusing young boys? Good. Now we were getting somewhere. Jeff Anderson was the lawyer who’d gone after him. He’d brought hundreds of cases against the Catholic Church and he usually won. He won, in fact, about 85 percent of the time. I had his phone number. It would be the easiest thing in the world for me to call him up. We could have the papers filed so quickly it would make his head spin. How would he like to see his name on the front page of the local paper? I could see the lead already: Former bank president J. P. Hansen is accused of sexually exploiting and abusing a boy he counseled in the late 1980s, according to a civil lawsuit filed in Murray County District Court . . .
He said he couldn’t take this, couldn’t live with this, he’d rather die than see a story like that published. He said he’d be forced to kill himself if I was serious. He said he was going to get his gun and shoot himself and put an end to it all right now.
I told him he was a liar; I knew he didn’t own a gun.
He said, What is it you want from me?
I told him I didn’t want anything from him. I wanted things for him. I wanted him to see his name on the front page of the local paper, wanted to see him seated in court, wanted to watch him squirm while I told the world what he’d done.
He said he knew me well enough to know that I’d never go through with a court case. He said, Just tell me what it is you want, and I’ll do it.
I told him he didn’t know me at all, but he’d raised a good question. What did I want? I wasn’t sure. Maybe I wanted to put it all behind me. But I wasn’t sure how to do that. I wasn’t sure if a trial was the best way to do that but I thought it could be just the thing.
He said, Please, whatever you want, I’ll do it.
He said, Please, just keep this between us.
I told him the going rate on one of Anderson’s cases was fifty to a hundred grand in damages per victim. I couldn’t even remember if that was true but it sounded good.
He said, Is it money you want, is that it? He said all his money was tied up in the bank. He’d have to sell the bank if it came to that. He’d send me a little if that’s what I wanted. He’d send it right away, a few hundred.
I told him not to insult me, although my antennae were buzzing, as he must have hoped.
He said he had maybe five grand he could access right now but he needed some of it for Christmas gifts for his wife and kids, his grandkids.
I told him OK, send me the five grand and we’ll call it even.
He said he couldn’t send me the whole five grand, he really needed some of it for Christmas, he could maybe spare a grand, a grand and a half at the most.
I told him five grand was our number, he could send half now and half later, let’s say March 1. I’d give him my account number so he could wire the dough, pronto.
He said he could send $1,500, no more, and he’d have to write a check so he had a record of my signing and cashing it, and he’d need a letter from me, acknowledging receipt of the check and spelling out how much more to send and when to send it.
I told him no dice on the official correspondence, but nice try anyway — no, really, great effort, much appreciated. Half now, half by the end of February, and if he wanted to write a check that was cool, but it had better arrive in my mailbox by the end of the week or he’d be sorry. Then I hung up.
Two days later a check arrived in the mail, in the amount of $2,500.
The memo line read: Loan.
I promptly cashed the check and booked a plane ticket to Amsterdam for the holidays. Out of the country for the first time in my life, loose on the Continent with a Eurail pass, I spent every dime of that dirty money as frivolously as I could — champagne in Paris, dope in Amsterdam, ephemeral pleasures of one sort or another from London to Venice — shadowed the whole time by a mixture of exhilaration and shame, that familiar cocktail of emotion in all my dealings with the old man, almost from the beginning: the exhilaration of having got away with something, the shame of having let him off the hook for one more gift of cash.
He had at last made of me an American hustler, just not the kind he’d hoped.
I have two documents that serve as tangible traces of the man, aside from the account I immediately wrote in my diary after our telephone confab. One is a letter he sent after I returned from Europe. I’d been in touch by phone to let him know I’d transferred to the University of Montana, and, more important, to give him my address in Missoula, so he’d know where to send the balance on the — what to call it, exactly? Hush money? Blackmail? Some unholy amalgam of both? This letter would be the only one of its kind. I didn’t reply to it, and he never wrote again. In its mixture of affection, evasion, bluster, and strained jocularity, it strikes me now as a pretty good encapsulation of the man. It mentioned, in his impeccable cursive handwriting, that one of his daughters had attended the University of Montana in Missoula, where he had visited for a week many years earlier, and that he therefore knew the precise part of town where I lived; and although he went on to add that he was still involved in the work of making sure the bank was in compliance with regulatory examiners and, almost parenthetically, that his older brother had recently passed away, he eventually got around to the business at hand:
Phil, according to my atty, because of your court records back here, a judge would have a hard time to believe your stories about me.1 So lets get back to our friendship and caring about each other, and I will help you out like I always said I would do if you need it.
I am short of cash now, but should have 4 or 5 hundred by the 1st of the month.
Let me know if you need some now and for a few more months while at school out there?
P.S. Call me collect at home if you want to. Hope to hear right back from you. Still love you, you big stiff.
If he’d been more diplomatic, perhaps I’d have let him off the hook. I couldn’t believe the chutzpah. “My atty”? I knew he hadn’t said boo to a soul. I figured I’d outfox him, though. I would keep quiet; nothing to gain from writing him back in anger. He could send more money or not, it didn’t really matter. It hadn’t been about the money, disingenuous as that no doubt sounds. What mattered was keeping him scared. What mattered was the final and decisive shift in the balance of power. Besides, I’d see him eventually; I’d open my palm, and he’d do as I said. In the meantime I wanted him paranoid, muttering helplessly to himself in the night.
That summer, home for a funeral, I drove to his house and knocked on his door.
Old buddy, he said when he answered. I can’t believe it’s you.
Believe it, I said.
Why don’t you come in? he said.
I don’t want to come in, I said. You know why I’m here.
All right, he said, trying to remain friendly. How about we go have a drink downtown. My checkbook is at the bank. I’ll pick it up on the way.
How about I meet you at the bank, I said. We can skip the drink.
Ten minutes later I had a check in my hand for $1,000.
I never saw him again.
The other document is the obituary my mother sent me in the mail, clipped from our hometown paper, the Tracy Headlight-Herald, in the fall of 1999. “Thought you’d like to know,” she’d written on a Post-it note, assuming, correctly, that I’d be curious about this final news of my mentor in the Catholic faith, although she didn’t know the half of it. No one on earth had known a thing of our entanglement; it had always remained just between us, my way of perpetually honoring the first request he ever made of me, that his generosity with money remain a secret — our secret.
The obituary said he was born on October 3, 1920, on a farm in southwest Minnesota. I’d forgotten our birthdays were just a few days apart, our boyhoods so similar; he rarely spoke of his. It said he and his wife had celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary in June. I couldn’t imagine them feeling celebratory. It said that after college he moved to Southern California and joined the Marines, served a tour of duty, and was there for the invasion of Iwo Jima. I remembered the stories he’d told me about the war and the way his eyes got real spooky when he thought of his buddies blown apart in the mud, crying like little girls. It said one of his proudest accomplishments was building a new bank facility as president and chairman of the board of Currie State Bank, and it noted that he was a lifelong member of Immaculate Heart of Mary church, had served on the church council, was the first president of the Town and Country Club, had been the city treasurer, and belonged to the local American Legion, the county bankers’ association, and the Minnesota Bankers Association, where he was a member of the Pioneer Club, signifying fifty years with the organization.
It said, in the obligatory sentence offering a hint of his personal life, that he enjoyed sports, crossword puzzles, his career in banking, and spending time with people.
I couldn’t suppress a laugh at the phrase “spending time with people.”
A reference, apparently, to my car crash and the charge of “reckless driving, alcohol-related.” ↩