This is the 10th round of The Alphabet Challenge mentioned in THIS post. As a refresher, the Broxson twins, Gary and Perry, and I will each write one story for each letter of the alphabet. Meaning, a story whose title begins with the given letter. For this round, it’s the letter “J”.
Readers have until the publication of the next round of stories (about two weeks between rounds) to vote for their favorite story in the current round. Points will be assigned to each writer based on total votes received.
In each round, the story with the most votes gets three points. Second place gets two points, third place gets one point. In the case of a tie, the points for the tied rankings are added and then split equally among the writers who tied. At the end of the year, we tally up and crown the winner with the most points.
Long or short, each story will appear on its own post and the trio will be followed by a fourth post where readers can vote.
Here we go. Presented anonymously, the third of three stories with titles beginning with the letter “J” as submitted by its author.
Copyright 2020 — (Perry Broxson)
(4,262 words – approx. reading time: about 16 minutes based on 265 WPM)
“Class of ’81 . . . can I get a get a Timber Wolf howl?” Baxter goaded.
The Holiday Inn banquet hall erupted with lupine caterwauls. Baxter basked in the bestial revelry, wondering how it came to be that he, a High School pip-squeak, would be the MC some 40 years on.
“I can’t hearrrr youuuu,” he taunted, cupping his ear with his hand.
Ninety-one classmates and their seventy-seven spouses bayed until their throats burned. When they could wail no more, they soothed themselves with bar drinks and lozenges and laughter.
Baxter had no podium, nothing to hide behind. It was him, a cheap karaoke mic, and the skills he’d accrued in the 40 years since he’d last encountered these people, these classmates – the kids, that had by sheer circumstance, been born, reared, and raised in the same school district as he, and had shared the same desks and halls and teachers and memories as he.
His size seemed not to matter now. Perhaps, he thought, it was his celebrity status as an ESPN anchor. After graduation, he’d not wasted a minute getting out of Aberdeen, Indiana. On May 14, 1981, he loaded his Datsun hatchback and pointed the hood ornament east. “New York or bust”, was fingered in the red dust of his back windshield. He had an Eagles greatest hits cassette tape, two shoeboxes filled with baseball cards, and a sack of PB and J sandwiches his mother had fixed. That, and a dream.
He made it – made it big-time. Caught a break with the fledgling start-up sports cable network as a field reporter. By 1987 he was doing live commentary for NCAA basketball, by ‘90 it was Monday Night Football. He’d become an American staple, a one-name celebrity: Baxter. A goofy, nerdy, quirky analyst with big words and big passions; most notable for his confrontational interviews. His on-air fight with Lyle Alzado, the all-pro defensive end for the Raiders, endeared him to the everyman. It started when Baxter hectored Alzado about the rumors of steroid abuse. It ended with six studio crewmen pulling Alzado off of him.
What was unknown to most, was that Baxter gave Alzado’s eulogy in 1992.
Baxter scanned his audience, analyzing them like a batch of rookies. He was unsure of himself, and how to proceed. He realized he didn’t know these people anymore. He squinted through the harsh stage light, attempting to sync the teenage homunculi to its ripened and rotted body-snatcher. As he stood before them in a Versace suit, he thought of the Ship of Theseus Paradox, a darling of first-year philosophy.
If, over an expanse of years (in this case, forty years) each part of a ship christened as the Theseus is replaced with new parts, is the ship still the same, the original? Is it still the Theseus?
As he lifted the mic to say something, he noticed his hand. It was not the hand that had shot the ball and made the basket and won the state championship. It was an old man’s hand: spotted, gnarled, shriveled and thin-skinned. He regarded the crowd. They were not the kids that had alternately taunted him and lauded him, tortured him and glorified him. They were not the same ships that had set sail in 1981.
“Sally asked me to MC this party,” Baxter said, suddenly self-conscious. He’d spoken to countless millions but was now suddenly stupefied.
“By the way, let’s give it up for Sally Renfro. Wow, still heart-breakingly beautiful. Without Sally, this high school reunion would have never happened. Sally, stand up and take a bow.”
Sally stood and bowed and blushed. As applause swelled, Baxter watched the curvy, widowed, grandmother-of-three revert to a sassy, nubile cheerleader. She was the reason, he thought, the reason he’d come . . . the reason he agreed to MC.
“Before you eat your rubber chicken and chocolate mousse,” Baxter said, “I’m going to tell you a story. It’s the story of a boy and a ball and a brawl.”
A voice from the unlit recess of the crowd called out: “Bax Ter, Bax Ter, Bax Ter!”
Without coercion, the crowd joined the chant, increasing the volume so much that several Holliday Inn clients called the concierge and complained.
Baxter switched the mic to his left hand and made a basketball shooting motion with his right. Swoosh! Then he raised his arms in a human V, echoing the glory of his past, some forty-years prior.
“That’s gotta be Hans back there making that racket,” Baxter said into the mic. Where are you? There you are, you big galoot. How could I miss you?”
A man of immense size and shambolic demeanor stood and pushed away from his table. He raised a beer can of Pabst Blue Ribbon and saluted the speaker.
“Hans,” Baxter, reciprocated, raising his bottle of Evian. “To you: The only Swedish exchange student – in the history of student exchanges – that chose Aberdeen, Indiana over Stockholm, Sweden. I love you, brother, but your judgement is” . . . Baxter ran out of words and simply teetered his hand in a not-so-sure gesture.
“Where were we before the our beloved Swedish Meatball interrupted?” Baxter asked. “Oh, yes, story time.”
The DJ, Gay Mike, dimmed the stage lights. Gay Mike had also high-tailed it out of Aberdeen upon graduation – diving into the music scene of San Fran. In school, they’d called him Gay Mike because of the glut of Mikes – not to be derogatory. There was Straight Mike, Crippled Mike, Fat Mike, and Skinny Mike.
“Once upon a time,” Baxter continued, “a boy, barely tall enough to ride the rollercoaster at Six Flags, laced up his Chuck Taylors and tried out for the varsity basketball squad.”
“Bax-TERRRRR!” Hans shouted, whipping his serviette like a gym towel.
Baxter laughed. His nerves calmed. “If I have to fetch Coach Grantham down at Shady Oaks Retirement Home to shut you up, Hans, I’ll do it.”
When the laughter dissipated, Baxter continued. “This boy was small. Not Hobbit small, but close. He was a junior, fifteen, a fraction over five-two, and a cheeseburger over one-hundred pounds. Was he fast? No. Was he a playmaker? Not really. Could he shoot the lights out? He thought he could. The Coach was less certain. But the Coach was kind and offered the boy a spot on the squad – ahem – as the equipment manager.
“At first, the boy was crestfallen. It was the era of Magic and Kareem and Bird . . . Larry Bird, the Hick from French Lick, was his idol. He watched all the games on a grainy Zenith console set, and he worshiped the long men in short-shorts.
“It’s not as if the boy was totally un-athletic. He’d grown up playing ball with these guys – his peers. Only, they’d kept growing. For reasons only genetics knows, he’d stalled at age twelve.
“That was his body . . . not his mind . . . not his will . . . not his Timber Wolf spirit!”
The crowd howled.
“At the ’80 Christmas break, the season was half-over. The boy had done yeoman’s work with the equipment. The towels had never been whiter, nor more aromatic. He’d taken on additional duties: recording stats, working the game-clock, and yelling unsolicited advice to Coach Grantham. Mostly, pleading for him to sit Hans before he fouled out or killed someone.
“I remember the day it changed for me – yes, I’m the boy in the story. It was Christmas day. After breakfast with my family, I went to the gym. As the equipment manager, I was entrusted with the key. I thought I was all alone, shooting and cursing my misses. Turns out, Coach Grantham was there. He’d been in his office going over the stats I’d recorded, trying to divine a strategy for the back-half of the season.
“’Baxter,’ he called. The empty gym echoed.
“I thought it was God. But no, it was one better . . . it was Coach George Grantham, a man that played Division One ball against the likes of Bob Cousy, Dolph Schayes, and George Mikan. Like so many big men, his knees and feet failed him. But he never failed us.
“’You should be home,’ Coach said, ‘with your family. It’s Christmas . . . you should be opening presents.’”
“I showed him my new Chuck Taylors and leather in-door Spalding basketball. ‘I’m good, Coach. Got all I need right here.’
“He smiled, showing those ill-fitting dentures. Cousy, he’d once said, had cracked the front four with a wicked elbow. ‘You’ve been a great help, Baxter,’ he said. ‘As good as any assistant coach I’ve had. I like to see hard work rewarded. Your post-game summaries are very helpful – moving Hans to power forward was inspired. You’ve given me a gift, Baxter; given the team a gift. You have my word, if there’s a way, I’ll get you in a game this season.’
“’Coach,’” I said, ‘you don’t know how much that means.’
“He did know. ‘It’s not about the glory, is it?’
“’No, sir,’ I said.”
“’It’s about a girl,’ he surmised. And I nodded.”
Baxter took a long draught from his Evian water bottle, wiped his mouth with his Versace sleeve, and continued.
“Alvin,” he shouted. “Alvin Presley – you out there in the audience?”
Baxter slipped on his glasses and scanned the crowd. “He’s dead,” Sally Renfro shouted. “Cancer got him.”
“Oh, that’s a shame,” Baxter said, genuinely hurt. “He was a good boy, and I’m sure a good man. Alvin gave me my big break. Not sure if you recall; he played back-up point guard for Skinny Mike. Alvin was the twelfth man on a twelve-man roster. He gave me my big break by breaking his ankle skateboarding. Life, apparently, was not always kind to Alvin.
“I was in the laundry room, sorting towels and jerseys and jocks and socks, when Coach Grantham walked in. He said, ‘That one.’ He pointed to a XL jersey with 14 on it. ‘That one’s yours. Clean the curse of Alvin off it and wear it Friday night.’
“That was it. That’s how I became a Varsity Basketball player – a Timber Wolf!”
Hans howled and pounded the table.
“When I say player, I’m being charitable. I did not play. The backside of the season was intense. The games were tight. Coach Grantham credited me for changes I’d proposed – changes that turned Ls into Ws. The downside was, there was no garbage time – no blowouts wherein that a scrub like me could take the floor and strut my stuff. Not sure about your memories of the ‘81 team, but we went to District, Regionals, and State. The first time in school history.”
The room erupted like a pep rally.
“Please, it wasn’t because of me. I scored three points the entire season. My entire High School basketball career.”
“One for one,” Hans hollered. “100 percent field goal average!”
Baxter pretended the mic was a telephone. “Coach Grantham, it’s time to bench him. Hans is out of control.”
When the patter of laughter faded, the story resumed.
“This story is really about one game, one girl, and one shot. The girl . . . I’ve been cagey, haven’t I? Haven’t said much about her. She and I had made a deal . . . if I got a varsity letter on my jacket, she would go to prom with me. Seems coldly transactional now, but back then . . . well, still pretty damned transactional. Anyhow, the school rules were, a player does not receive a varsity letter or pin unless said player scores a point in the respective sport. In today’s world of participation trophies, this must seem pretty arcane.
“Be that as it may, travel with me, if you will, to February 14th – Valentine’s Day – 1981. It was a cool evening in a hot gym. Our fans filed in, sitting on steel seats, stripping off scarves and coats and gloves. I felt like a gladiator in the Roman Coliseum, awaiting battle. Across the parquet floor was the Lowtown Lions – a swaggering band of hayseeds, big as bulls, mean as moccasins. There was bad blood. Generational. Our fathers spoke of it in hushed tones, usually when drinking. In the 40’s, one of Lowtown’s All-State footballers raped an Aberdeen cheerleader. There were charges. An arrest. Bribes. And an acquittal. The distraught young lady threw herself off of the Chippewa bridge.
“The Lions front court consisted of the Van Axel triplets, Bart, Burt, and Ben. They were all big, but Ben the biggest – he was 6’7” pushing 3 bills. Bart and Ben together were 5 bills . . . but Ben called them runts. For a prank, the three of them lifted their Trig teacher’s Mazda and put it between two oaks.
“The Van Axels were the brawn. The front court had the brains – Dale Somebody and Shooter Bragg. Shooter was the Lions’ star player. He could shoot from any spot on the court. Unorthodox style – an old school set-shot. He was a lefty, so it looked even stranger when he’d cock-and-launch from his shoulder. He averaged 27.2 points a game. Funny side story, I called one of his Division II college games as a rookie commentator. Never mentioned the incident.
“The incident . . . for those not in the know . . . was, in the parlance of sport-speak, a donnybrook. Otherwise known as a barn-burner, a brawl, or melee.
“Now you remember. It’s coming back, isn’t it? Even if you weren’t there, you heard about it. It was the biggest story in Porter County until Reagan got shot. Most people think they know the story – the incident. But the truth is, nobody knows what happened that chilly night in the blistering gym. Nobody but Shooter, Hans, and me.
“Shooter Bragg was lighting us up. We’d never seen a kid shoot from 20, 25, and unimaginably, 30 feet. In 1979, the 3-point line was instituted in the NBA. High schools were slower . . . drawing the arc in 81, our season. Coach Grantham was suspicious of it – thinking it promoted ‘hot-dogging,’ as he called it.
“Shooter Bragg thrived behind the three-point line. He had 30 points at the end of the 3rd quarter. Coach called time-out after time-out, scolding Skinny Mike to dog him, to get in his jock. (A job better suited for Gay Mike, if you ask me.)
“Skinny Mike tried; god bless him. But we’d never seen the likes of this. With no notice, Shooter would cock-and-launch and scorch the strings. And when he did miss, one of the three-headed Van Axel boys would snatch the rebound and put it back. Hans fought ol’ Cerberus like a mythic hero, but the results weren’t good. We – your tenacious Timber Wolves – were down 3 points with 1 minute on the clock.”
A howling broke out, replete with a drumming rumble of foot-stomps. Baxter took a long slug from his Evian. Gay Mike sparked the speakers with Bruce Springsteen’s Glory Days boomed, filling the room.
“From your reaction,” Baxter said slowly, wringing nostalgia, pride, and pathos from the crowd. “From your reaction . . . you have a passing memory of what next occurred in that old gymnasium. But for those of you demented seniors, with failing memories and enlarged prostates, I’ll remind you. Skinny Mike fouled out. Fouled out in the worst way – hacking Shooter Bragg as he jacked a three-ball. Of course, it went in, putting the Lions up 6 and putting Shooter on the charity stripe.
“I still remember Coach Grantham standing and looking down the bench. ‘Jimbo, get in there for Mike.’
“’Can’t Coach . . . I fouled out too.’
“Coach pointed at Tillson. ‘Tilly, take over for Mike.’
“Tilly held up his right hand, showing two fingers taped together. ‘They’s busted, Coach G. Remember when I jammed ‘em in the second quarter?’
“Coach Grantham pulled on his wild, whitening hairs. ‘Baxter,’ he croaked, then hung his head. ‘Check in at the scorer’s table.’
“I jumped up and wrestled with my warmup jacket. Suddenly I’d forgotten how to free my arms from sleeves. My boy Hans broke out of the huddle and helped me. He then patted my head like a Chihuahua and said, ‘Don’t shoot. If you do shoot, make it. But don’t shoot.’
“Best, worst advice ever, wouldn’t you say?”
Hans stood and took a bow. The crowd yelled ‘Hans’ until it morphed into another round of Timber Wolf howls.
“As I stepped onto the court, Shooter Bragg grabbed my hand, shook it, and said ‘Welcome to my world, chump.’ Then he squeezed so hard that my knuckles cracked.
“As I rubbed my hand, the whistle blew and a Van Axel oaf set a pick on me. I was trapped. Shooter did what shooters do, he shot . . . and astonishingly, missed. Hans grabbed the rebound and kicked it out to me. I knew the plays and I knew our situation: 6 down with 55 seconds. I dribbled past half-court and lifted my fist, showing the sign for Power Play. Hans smiled when he saw it. He knew it was his number.
“He blasted past the Van Axels and set a pick for me at the top of the key. Once my defender, Shooter, was pinned, I slashed to the basket. Hans rolled off the pick, following me to the hoop. I faked a layup and lofted it to Hans for an easy alley-oop.
“Shooter Bragg was unimpressed. I pressed him the entire length of the court, doing the one thing that I’m good at – talking. I talked trash, savage trash. ‘Saw your Mama in the parking lot, Shooter. She’s so fat, that when I swerved to drive around her, I ran out of gas.’
“He stepped back and jacked up a 27-footer. It went in. For a full second, I swear, it went in. Then it miraculously spilled out. The Lions’ crowd roared and whimpered in the same breath.
“’No Mom jokes,’ Shooter warned. ‘She’s got a gland problem. Not cool.’
“Shooter might as well have put a bulls-eye on his psyche. As I dribbled down court, I said, ‘Yeah, I saw her coming into the gym. They had to grease the double-door frame and coax her in with a twinkie.’ As Shooter glowered at me, Hans set another pick. Same play. I slashed to the basket and dumped it off to Hans on the roll. Two points. We were 2 down, with 12 seconds on the clock.
“Shooter Bragg caught the in-bound pass. He crossed half-court and seemed content to run out the clock by dribbling away from me. I hit him with the last, best, dirtiest joke in my armament. ‘Bet you won’t shoot it, Shooter. You’re only three points from the state record. It’d sure make your fat mama proud. Speaking of yo mama, could you tell her to stop wearing lipstick?’
“Shooter stopped dribbling. The clock kept ticking. Five seconds, four, three . . . ‘Why?’ he asked, genuinely perplexed.
“’Because my dick is starting to look like a rainbow.’
Gay Mike, the DJ, played: Everybody was kung fu fighting . . .
“When it finally clicked in Shooter’s brain, his eyes burned and his teeth bared. He threw the ball at me and charged, tackling me like a dummy.
“Hans pulled him off and tossed him like a sack of apples. The Van Axel boys jumped Hans and went hog-wild. All ten players engaged, grappling and wresting and throwing haymakers.
“Mothers screamed as fathers bounded down bleachers, storming the floor, punching and pulling and protecting their sons. Cheerleaders collided at midfloor, pulling hair, scratching, and slapping makeup off each other’s faces.”
Sally Renfro ripped an enthusiastic lady howl, and was joined by a chorus of tenors.
Baxter took a slug of Evian, then another, and another. “Ya know,” he said, “they should have called it. Ended the game. Today, they definitely would have. But this was the eighties, right? Big hair. AIDS. Cold war. Hot nukes pointed at us. We were tougher then. Less politically correct.”
Baxter, struck by his own hypocrisy, pushed his posh water aside and called across the hall to the bartender. “Barkeep, could you do me a solid and bring me a boilermaker – Wild Turkey and PBR, please.”
The crowd found their chant: Bax Ter, Bax Ter!
Baxter waited until his drink arrived, then he sat on the floor. “Can you guys do me a favor?”
“Yes,” they said as one.
“Can you sit down? I mean, on the floor. Like this. Because this is how the story ends.”
They did. Ladies in dresses and men in slacks – all 169 people did as they were asked.
Baxter repeated, “The refs should have called it. Sent everyone home. Maybe even called the cops. But this is Indiana and basketball is religion here. What they did, instead, was put me on the line to shoot two free throws with .9 seconds on the clock.”
He took a big gulp from the boilermaker and grinned.
“So, I went to the line. I stood there in my oversized jersey – Alvin Presley’s hand-me-down – number 14. The ref handed me the ball and held up two fingers. Two shots to make three points, I calculated. How does that math work?
“I turned off my brain and studied the front of the orange, iron ring. When I thought I had it ciphered, I shot.”
“Air ball,” Hans shouted from the back of the hall, and laughed.
Baxter joined the big Swede’s boisterous laugh. “Yes, Hans, I remember. I hit nothing and missed everything . . . making the math less manageable. Do you remember the wink, Hans? You had three Van Axel boys preparing to pounce on you to grab the rebound, and you gave me that sly little wink.”
“Those were tears,” Hans hollered. “I thought you’d fucked us over.”
Baxter laid back, staring at the tiled banquet hall ceiling. He brought the mic to his mouth and said, “There was only one thing to do. I put the ball between my legs and pretended like I was going to shoot it granny-style, like Rick Berry. As the Van Axel boys leaned in toward the goal, I quickly yanked it back like a football and slung it as hard as I could. I staggered back as the ball smacked the front of the iron. And the rest was a blur. The next thing I knew, the ball was in my hands. Magically. I guess it bounced – ricocheted off the rim – some 20 feet. And just landed in my hands.
“All I could think was shoot. Maybe that because Big Hans was yelling: ‘Shoot, shoot, shoot!’ So I did. It took every molecule of muscle and every fluid ounce of adrenaline I had, but I shot that rock and . . . it . . . went . . . in.”
The class of ‘81 erupted, as if the past had replaced the present.
“I collapsed. Fell on the gym floor. My teammates dog-piled me. It was the best moment of my life. I can think of none better . . . well, maybe one. One yet to transpire.”
Basking in the applause, Baxter slowly rose from the floor. “Up ya go,” he said, motioning to the crowd. “Those were the only points I scored that season. But it was enough. It got me a varsity letter and basketball pin. But I got gypped by my prom date. She caught mono – not from me, I assure you – and sat out of school for the last three months. No tuxedos, corsages, or slow dances to schmaltzy 80’s ballads.”
On cue, DJ Mike kicked off a tune and hit Baxter with a red spot light. Baxter smiled and began unbuttoning his Versace suit jacket, slowly, finding the rhythm of familiar song.
“I’m a sore loser,” Baxter confessed. “If there’s a way to win, I’ll find it . . . even if it takes 40 years.”
When the last button was undone, he wriggled out of his suitcoat, as he’d done the warmup jacket in 1981. Baxter dropped the expensive garment on the stage floor. He strode from one end of the stage like a supermodel on a catwalk, spinning and mugging and loving the attention. When Baxter reclaimed center stage, he uncinched his tie, and flung it. Unbuttoned his white silk shirt, and flung it.
The crowd gasped and then laughed, marveling at Baxter’s undergarment – his original jersey. Baxter was 37 pounds heavier than the kid that had sunk the game-winning three-pointer in 1981, but the jersey still fit.
“Turn it up, Mike,” he said to the DJ. “Turn it up to eleven.”
Journey’s classic ballad, Open Arms, filled the banquet hall, and the hearts of those within.
With nothing between him and his people and his past, Baxter displayed his threadbare jersey, faded, ill-fitting, and wholly inappropriate. Above the red number, over his heart, a speck of metal glistened. It was copper basketball – a varsity pin. Baxter pointed to it, then to Sally Renfro, his old flame.
Baxter unfastened the pin and presented it. “Sally, you said if I lettered, you’d go to prom with me. You said you’d dance with me. Prom is long gone, but as long as we breathe . . . as long as we believe . . . the dance continues.”
He held out his hand and she came to him . . . with open arms.
That’s it. This post has ended . . . except for the stuff below.
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