website, blog and vanity nexus of writer R F Brown

This short story was first published in SPITBALL Literary Baseball Magazine, Fall 2018, No. 83. http://www.spitballmag.com/

[Orlando, FL] Marco Firehydrant Flores tells me another story in third person. “There was this movie on in Flores’ Hotel room, Damn Yankees. Kinda gay, Flores watching a musical, ay? But these baseball players dance pretty good around the locker room. And they sing how you gotta have heart to be a hero? Flores calls bullshit. To be a winner in the bigs, you gotta have inmenso guts. Miles and miles of guts! You know what Flores is saying?”

Flores, veteran catcher and player co-captain for the Orlando Rebels, was not known before as one who spends an away evening up in his room. The roster’s notoriety for subpar baseball is preceded by its reputation as a police lineup of brawlers, boozers and skirt chasers. Tall tales from Firehydrant’s bar-vaulting shenanigans over the years would make Babe Ruth say Guy’s a douchebag.

Today Flores, dressed in cargo shorts and a billowing pink-hibiscus print shirt, welcomes me at the front door of his dignified but disheveled Kissimmee, FL townhouse. He invites me into the family kitchen despite having no memory of this interview being prearranged between the Rebels and Athletis.net. I am assigned to shadow him from home, to practice, to game.

By appearance, Flores had an official Rebels post-game night that probably did not end until a couple of hours before my morning arrival. The orange dyed spikes in his fauxhawk are snarled and his eyes look like a pair of carelessly stuffed duffle bags. His dark beard is fresh and his deodorant is sleeping in. But he vaults over the kitchen counter and pulls a toddler’s crayon drawing from a pile of toys. While Flores talks without interruption, Fauxhawk Jr. runs in and out of our interviewing kitchen like a gerbil. In that child’s neo-expressionist drawing, the figure of a man about Firehydrant’s stout body type might be vomiting into a toilet, or pushing a lawn mower that blows clippings back into his face. Flores sets the paper down on the linoleum near the refrigerator dubbing me the pitcher and the crayoned Basquiat as, “Home plate!”

“This is pitch framing, Flores style,” Flores says. He grabs a catcher’s mitt off the kitchen counter and squats low on the balls of his feet behind the drawing, his imposing butt sticking out. The six four, two hundred fifty pound man really does fold himself to the height and likeness of a firehydrant. Between his hulky thighs the leather mitt appears a half-foot from the floor. His left elbow is hinged to his thigh and his arm swings slow in inches left and right, like the smooth graphing needle on a lie detector. “Just be a low target with soft hands, mano,” he says. “Home in Denver, my pee wee coaches never said framing. They called it catching the ball in the right place. Now, all you reporters want to know about the same mierda Flores’s been doing for years.”

I do not argue with Flores¾­­he hardly gives me the chance to squeak a word in¾but frankly I am assigned here to try and figure out why this year he is remarkably not the same. I am here to find out how a thirty-six-year-old journeyman catcher, with his sixth team in thirteen years, almost single handed has pushed the perennial last Rebels up to first in their division during what was prognosticated to be, yet another, building year.

I am told Orlando sports radio jocks have been merciless to Flores since the day he was traded here about both his defensive performance and offensive output. During the first two years with Orlando, Flores’s numbers ranked at or near bottom of the National League among catchers in Extra Strikes. Yet this year, without an admitted change in his training routine, Flores is doing things better than younger and more ambitious league counterparts¾all things better.

Last year Flores’s total extra called strike statistic was -22. April through June of this year he has already turned 195 borderline pitches into stolen strikes. And Flores’s Lefty O’Doulian late bloom is not only flowering in the crouch. His numbers standing up at the plate this season are also paranormal. His batting average last season was .220. This year he is hitting .358! Last year he hit four home runs. Today, a week before the All-Star break, Firehydrant has gone yard thirty-three times. Did I mention he has been voted an All-Star for the first time in fifteen pro seasons?

Back at Athletis.net in New York, our own team on the baseball desk watched Flores catch in slo-mo, and compared video from last season. We wanted to see just how good he suddenly is at making outside pitches look like strikes. Last year we saw a catcher whose mitt flopped around. His body position changed from pitch to pitch, down on one knee, then moving up high. This year, Flores perches with the stillness of a darter bird, low behind the plate, opening up the range of the strike zone in the umpire’s vision. He makes pitches four or five inches below the zone look like they are right down the middle, as if influencing the trajectory of the ball with flicks of telekinesis. We all agreed, Flores is the best anybody remembered at catching borderline pitches and tricking umpires into thinking they have seen a strike. But how in Hell is he doing it? And why is he doing it so well so late in his professional career?

Sitting on a kitchen stool, I ask him direct, “What’s changed, Marco? It’s no secret most catchers’s knees are shot by thirty-six and they’re on the trailer, either to Triple A or the glue factory.”

“Like I told you, ese, my whole career I just tried to set up in the right position and catch the ball. Then there was this night in April, last of our opening series down in Houston. Rebels lost. Still, in the visitor locker room after there was a big ice tub of Bud Light waiting. Bud Light after showers. Bud Light on the bus. Bud Light on the plane to Orlando. Next day we’re supposed to be at our park for BP at, like, pinche noon. Flores woke up with a hangover that felt like I had ten shitty minutes to live. I was sitting on the toilet and looking through the bathroom cupboard for some Suero. All we had in the house was this medicine my wife gives to Little Flores when his stomach gets the chorros. You know?”

Flores reaches his bowling pin forearm across the kitchen counter and picks up a pudgy plastic bottle that could have been designed from a mold of his coiled body demonstrated a minute earlier. The bottle is half full with a dayglow light blue liquid, a bubble-font label reads Baby-Aid.

“That morning when I chugged one of these Baby-Aid bottles my hangover was gone in five minutes. Then I drove out to the park, on time for BP, and starting hitting lightning bolts. It was loco. When I got under the plate to catch that day, ay, I could make pitches go wherever I wanted them to go, just by thinking about it.”

So, here is a grown man and seasoned baseball player confessing to me, in his palooka lisp, that the secret to his sudden professional awakening is not steroids, growth hormones, or amphetamines but an over-the-counter substance¾his toddler’s blue diarrhea medicine. Do not ask me if it is cheating. I am speechless.

“You say I’m shitting you? Ride out to the ballpark with me, cabrón.”

Firehydrant walks me out to the townhouse driveway and his yellow-on-black Camaro with a child booster seat snugged in the back. He brushes a layer of cracker crumbs off the passenger side and drives me the fourteen miles over to Apalachee Energy Park in the peanut butter smelling racecar.

Holding the steering like the pommel of a saddle in one hand, in the other he holds the Baby-Aid bottle, drawing from it like a moonshine jar. I will leave to your imagination the adherence to speed limit laws and common safety rules exhibited by a millionaire athlete on the Florida expressway. Taxi drivers in Mumbai are probably more courteous. However, toward me, inbetween cutting off short buses and flipping off retirees, Flores is an ever-chatty and entertaining coachman. He regales me with scandalous stories of wild parties at afterhours New York nightclubs I never heard of, and shares off-the-record erotica about women baseball groupies from (of course) times before he was married.

This year Flores’s Sabermetrics are ascending and he’s going to make the All-Star team, but folks are saying has also become a sweeter guy. This is an important part of my story, because the players around him have not given up their off-field carousing or on-field bad attitudes. As our expressway odyssey closes in on the ballpark, I am the one breaking the news about an Orlando Rebels press release emailed this morning. Marco Flores does not know yet he is nominated to receive a Musial Award.

“A musical award?” Flores asks me. “Like Damn Yankees?”

“No, Musial as in baseball legend Stan Musial,” I explain. “It’s an award honoring sportsmanship. Last year they gave one to Lebron when he told that referee during the NBA finals to reverse an out of bounds call so that it went against Lebron’s team.”

“Flores never heard of Stan Musial,” he says. His inky eyebrows shoot up. “Ay, shit. Bros on the team are going to bust my cocos.” Indeed, several inspiring game incidents this season have led to the endangerment of Flores’s cocos.

In May, during a game against the Giants, Flores hit a high drive to deep left field that landed just fair close to the foul line, then bounced into the seats. Third-base umpire, Mike Martinez, ruled the ball foul incorrectly and unreviewably. Firehydrant Flores of previous seasons would have gone ballistic. This year, the new less-combative Firehydrant was heard hurrahing to the inaccurate ump, “Es la vida, Martinez. Flores’ll try it again!” BTW, while Rebels teammates were still scratching their knuckleheads, the next pitch came and Flores hit the ball out to the same spot a foot further inside the line. The ball was called a double on an identical bounce out.

A few weeks later, Flores was playing position when an opposing catcher from the Phillies named Nguyen raced against a long throw from center to home and crashed into Flores protecting the plate. Neither player was injured, but it sure looked like Nguyen had perpetrated an aggressive, deliberate collision. Still he was called safe. During the Rebels frame, Flores came to the plate and was heard saying to Nguyen, now at catcher position, “Don’t worry, hermono. Flores, he’s alright. Let’s both be more careful.” Flores even shook the rival catcher’s hand in a show of voluntary forgiveness. The Philadelphia crowd was impressed. In the Rebels dugout, disapproving teammates booed their own guy.

“I guess your fellow Rebels don’t honor sportsmanship?”

“No mames! Most of them Rebels pendejos probably think good sportsmanship means like not pissing in the visitor’s dugout before a game.”

“If you don’t mind me saying, your reputation has never been to be the Christian Gentleman of the diamond. Until this year.”

“Nope. Never ‘til-,” Flores finished his sentence by tapping his Baby-Aid bottle against the steering wheel. “Yo, you’re right though. This year Flores is telling the ball where to go out of the pitcher’s release. And I’m hitting like a vato¾the man. You know? Ever since I started on the blue hechizo every day, I’ve been feeling like I want to be a friendly dude during games. Flores got no other explanation. I think it’s side effects from drinking this diarrhea shit.”

“But isn’t drinking that blue junk like cheating?” I ask.

“How can it be cheating if it makes me a better dude?”

We arrive at the ballpark three hours before the day’s game. Out on the field Flores and teammates are dressed in Orlando Rebels orange practice unis that remind me of prison jumpsuits. Rebels management is allowing Athletis.net unusual imbedded access to the dugout and player meetings. Maybe management is glad they have a positive story to get out about one of their players.

Out in the bullpen I sit watching Flores drill with Rebels pitchers. Revived from his hangover, he is also a resilient target for mockery from teammates over the Musial Award. Particularly vicious is the other Rebels cocaptain, the long-tenured closing pitcher and white southerner Thatch Bossier. He has a wide, rectangular body like a backstop and a disproportionate small head that’s puny like a Skittle.

“Awww, Flores,” Bossier heckles in a to-the-bayou-born drawl, “make sure they save you name on that trophy, yeah, or police’ll think you some wetback gone stole it. Yeah, ol’ Firehydrant’s fixin’ to have us proud eatin’ them Mexican refried beans at that Musial ‘Ward celebration.”

Being an enlightened liberal New Yorker, I am inclined to indict Bossier and others for their lame, racist jokes, but Flores is just as offensive cracking about white-trash stupidity or calling the African-American players lazy. I gather insensitivity is a quaint fixture in Rebels esprit de corps. All the players participate in taunting each other with homophobic innuendos, pulling asinine pranks on the equipment crew, swearing like Tarantino characters at coaches, and whistling at front office women professionals. They will not mind me printing it¾Rebels are a team of All-Star jerks.

During the game that afternoon against the Cincinnati Reds I sit behind the Rebels in the back of their dugout. From the first Rebels pitch, catcher Flores is supernatural in framing the ball for strikes. He sets up lower than a sea cucumber behind home plate flashing finger signs at the dilettante pitcher for corner sinkers or outside changeups. If the pitches are a few inches or a foot off, it does not matter. Flores grabs everything and holds the balls an extra half-second to get (in the umpire’s eye) called strikes. Any pitch within eyeshot of the plate Flores snaps up like a Venus flytrap. Yet, I can barely see his arm move. His mitt appears to have its own gravitational field. Cincinnati’s best hitters, used to stretching at bats with fouls to drive up depreciation on the starting pitcher’s arm, are out on strikes almost before they realize it.

As for his own at bats, Flores is every bit as freakish. He hits 4-for-5 this day: two doubles, two homers, and the fifth they intentional walk him. At one point, after he jogs through another gauntlet of teammate high fives, ass swats, and Great job, Wetback acclamations I ask him, “How is it you’re bringing that bat to almost every pitch?”

“I ain’t,” he explains, “Flores is bringing the pitch to the bat. All I gotta do is think hard enough about how I want the ball to come in and it does.” He winks at me and leans close. “Blue juice, ese.” Yet, Flores’s contributions on both sides of the plate are not even the headline of the day.

It happens between the 8th and 9th innings. Cincy is losing 2-4, up next for their last three outs, when their Pavarotti-sized manager stomps out for a word with the chief umpire. Soon the rest of the umpires come around home plate, and the Rebels hangdog manager is called into the conference as well. Those of us sitting in the dugout struggle to ascertain what is in dispute. Things get more mysterious when the Reds manager leads the entire umpiring crew out to the Rebels bullpen. During an interminable delay, info finally trickles back the Reds are alleging Thatch Bossier has been seen in possession of binoculars. The implication being that Flores, the sole and unbelievable Rebel hitter of the day, is being aided by his team’s relief pitchers stealing signs from the Reds catcher. However, if Rebels relievers have some illegal, long-distance spying device, no evidence is found. The umpires return to their bases and the ninth inning begins. Guilty or not, Bossier does not appreciate the accusation.

Being brought in to close the game, Bossier pitches a couple of pop-up outs, but seems more concerned with throwing brushbacks than strikes, and unnecessarily walks a batter on balls. The Reds are at their last out of the game when a young pinch hitter named Rahim comes to the plate in his first appearance up from the minors. On the first pitch, Bossier wallops him in the helmet, and Rahim goes down to the dirt. Several angry Reds stalking the mound are held back by Pavarotti and the umpires, but I gather Bossier’s beanball does not sit right with Flores behind home plate either. While the Reds trainers help Rahim off the field, Flores trots out to the mound and has a quarrel with his pitcher. The Reds get to put a pinch runner at first, giving their team two men on with a winning run at the plate. Flores returns to his firehydrant-form squat. What happens next requires some speculation.

According to the Rebels third baseman, there is a silent but contentious flutter of catcher signs and pitcher head shrugs. According to a couple Rebels in the dugout, upon the pitch they swear they hear Flores warning the Reds batter, “Fastball. High-outside.” True or not, the batter takes a high swing and pulls a three-run homer over the left field wall, earning the Reds the lead. The Rebels with their lineup (other than Flores) under-delivering all afternoon end up losing 4-5 to a division rival.

That evening after the game the mood in the Rebels clubhouse is quietly tense. Players still dressed in dirty orange uniforms sit by their lockers silent as piglets-at-the-teat as they sip Bud Lights and listen to their manager’s post-game tantrum. He is a bald relic with the weight of lifelong mediocrity on his declining shoulders. Furious with his team, and perhaps not following the recent comment thread, he screams about how without Flores’s offensive effort, the Rebels would not have scored at all. The players seem to bristle at praise of their teammate. I assume they are sore at Flores over the rumor of him giving over the game in a twisted act of fair play. After the manager is done trying to pull the hair out of his bald head, cocaptain Thatch Bossier tells the team to stay put.

“Y’all, come see for a damn minute!” Bossier orders, and the players sustain their bench loafing and their Bud Light-ing. “We havin’ an emergency only players meetin’. Yeah, some of us been talkin’ ‘bout a certain player, yeah. He been a real angel out there, huh, and guys is sick-sick of it. Helpin’ out the other team? Yeah, this good sport shit got to end. We all shamed the way people talkin’ ‘bout our team.” Bossier points his baseball glove at Flores. “We want ole Firehydrant back, him. If you don’t put up whatever you doin’ that turned you into a lil’ masisi, I’m fixin’ to see we got votes to have you down from cocaptain.”

“Cocaptain?” Flores throws back at Bossier. “Think Flores gives a pinche about that, redneck? Flores is gonna do Flores.”

“Awww, well, then Flores is fixin’ to get scratched as far as our after-game fêtes, yeah. No more rodier ‘round the town, huh, no more poker parties, no more fais-dodo back at the hotel with the putain girls. And you be out-out as my roommate on the road, Wetback? Comprend? So, watch it being too good-good boy, yeah, or you can pass up a good time and go drinkin’ by you self.”

I walk out of the ballpark that night next to Flores. He is dressed again in his pink hibiscus print civvies. I think it is the first time all day I have heard him not talking. Tonight an unusual cool breeze is on the Florida summer air, and the stars remind me that all things are possible in the vast universe. He stands near a trash barrel and lights a cigarette.

“Say it ain’t so, Marco. Did you tell the batter what pitch was coming?”

“Does it matter, ese? If he thought we were cheating, and then we put down their new player with a golpe on the head, that batter was going to get the winning homer somehow. The new Firehydrant stands by what’s fair.”

Watching the flatus of cigarette smoke waft up to the high-pressure sodium lights over the parking lot, it finally clicks for me what really happened in the locker room. Flores is not under threat of being blackballed by his teammates because he caused the loss of a winnable game; they are pissed that his drunkenness on decency is ruining the team’s cultivated bad reputation.

“You’ve got a tough choice, Marco.”

“Ay, keep playing like a champion, or give up the blue bottle so I can win back the respect of my hermonos.” He drops a full bottle of Baby-Aid into the barrel. “That song I was telling you about before, from Damn Yankees? The ballplayers sing how it takes miles of heart to be a vato. But to be a proud loser you gotta have guts too. You know what Flores is saying?”

readyoneReady Player One author Ernest Cline probably did not select the 1980s as the nostalgia motif of his novel simply because it happened to be the era of his youth. In current pop culture, Stranger Things, IT, 24K Magic, and plenty of other manifestations keep making the ‘80s the decade that cannot be terminated. Decades foregone, do today’s Gen-Zers ever feel false-nostalgia for Marcus Welby or The Macarena? There is something specifically poignant about the ‘80s that Cline thought would resonate with multi-generational readers.

Teenage Wade spends his days and nights memorizing the dialogue of John Hughes movies, listening to New Wave song files, and, most importantly, mastering classic arcade video games like Pac Man and Tempest. The year is 2044. Teen character obsessions with ’80s pop culture in Ready Player One is more than pacifying entertainment in the age of a catastrophic global energy crisis. Their avatar identities connect to virtual reality through a visor and motion-controlling gloves and hunt for treasure in the vast network called the OASIS, where people can become anybody they want or visit any place in the imaginable universe. Hunters occupationally plunder VR worlds for currency credits, fighting skill points, magic weapons and clues to the location of a trillion dollar prize. Halliday, a genius and recluse who designed the OASIS, has died and willed its ownership to the hunter who first solves a series of puzzles leading to a final figurative Easter Egg hidden in the lore of Halliday’s own ‘80s pop culture obsessions. The contest requires intense familiarity with Halliday’s favorite books, cartoons, and videogames from own teenage years, and has led to a global ‘80s craze fifty years beyond. As Wade, isolated in his personal hideout, describes, “Spiked hair and acid washed jeans are back in style.” He means what is in style amongst his peers inside the idealized and abstract universe of the Oasis.

In the America of 2044, climate change, wars and corporatism have reduced most of the population to depressed scavengers. Teenagers like Wade have been forced to abandon most of what we might consider a normal life of school, friendships, sex, and stepping outside. He lives a lonely existence in a vertical trailer park ghetto. But in the Oasis, Wade’s anonymous avatar, Parzival, is becoming the most famous Gunter [Egg + Hunter] in the world, relying on his mastery of ’80 pop culture to pursue the trail of Halliday’s arcane clues. The bulk of the novel follows Parzival, along with his team of Gunter comrades known popularly as the High Five, solving Halliday’s posthumous challenges left inside elaborate movie and videogame recreations. Their nemesis is IOI, a greedy corporation plotting to control the Oasis with a force of avatar clone armies trained to win the contests through cheating, extortion, and real world murder.

If this plot structure – a gang of troubled but precocious young people combine their expertises to defeat the schemes of an unscrupulous adult enterprise – sounds to you like Goonies, or Whiz Kids or other ‘80s era media artifacts, say Uno!

A recent article in the blog Vulture asked in its title Why Are We Still Obsessed With The ‘80s? Some of their answers were practical, such as what we see on our screens and hear through our earbuds is coming from media creatives in their 40s and 50s who have an affinity for the pop culture of their youth. Also the time traveling powers of YouTube and Facebook have mid-lifers introducing children, younger siblings, or nieces and nephews to the pop culture that populated their childhoods. So maybe the resiliency of the ‘80s is a phenomenon of shared multi-generational touchstones more available through current technology. As Vulture commented, “When one generation influences a second (and a third) generation in this way, there’s a pop cultural ripple effect that keeps on rippling… The pop culture we grew up on? You couldn’t ignore it if you tried.”

On a more theoretical level, Vulture suggested the tendency of media creatives to delve into the ‘80s as a means to connect the “now” to an era taking first steps into a transformative technological age. Nostalgia mining always offers an escape to idealized memories of youth, but the 1980s is the last full decade before the internet became an avatar for human interaction. In other words, maybe the reason why we keep trying to relive the ‘80s is because our computers have disconnected us from an authentic shared culture.

Ab ovo, Halliday’s Easter egg hunt. The futuristic odyssey specifically revisits a past in which technology was capturing young people’s desire for adventure before the internet supplanted real human interaction. We have to remind ourselves in the midst of Cline’s story that the High Five’s swashbuckling teen teamwork is all an illusion. In real life, the High Five buddies reside in remote parts of the world and do not even know what their comrades or competitors look like. Winning inside the Oasis – just as all commerce, politics, and notoriety of the day – is just a fantasy. There are not really trillions of dollars at stake in finding Halliday’s egg, just trillions of zeros and ones. The youths of ’44 have no actual participative culture of their own. It was Halliday’s dying desire to bequeath them his antique pop culture passions in a way that would stimulate actual interaction, something the inventor of the Oasis felt personally responsibility for ruining. Halliday’s contest is his last chance at real human connection, ironically after his death.

We might also say that Halliday is Ernest Cline’s avatar. Both the Easter Egg Hunt and Cline’s dystopian aesthetic are respective expressions of loss over something the ‘80s represented, a lost era of social engagement. Halliday filled his OASIS with references and facsimiles of the ‘80s culture he loved, then willed a contest which could only be won by someone who cared enough to love his same interests. Likewise, Cline, in writing Ready Player One offers readers a chance to connect or reconnect with his ’80s fondnesses. Of science fiction, another author, William Gibson (credited with reviving the SF genre in 1980s), once said, “It doesn’t resonate back from the future, it resonates out of modern history.” Cline’s sci-fi depicts a future that still searches for something we are missing out of our modern history. Both Cline, the creator, and his creator avatar, Halliday, seek to reboot real human-to-human communication.

rp13As for the Ready Player One motion picture adaptation, despite excellent special effects, it misses the chance to visualize the vast possibilities of the Oasis so inventively depicted by Cline. Also, the game of our hero Gunters using their intellectual powers to solve Halliday’s cryptic puzzles is given secondary treatment to fighting and action sequences. Not to say the action sequences are not well executed. In particular, a recreation of the movie The Shining as the setting for one of Halliday’s challenges provides something amazing on film that a novel could never do. Still, a disappointing shortcoming is the movie’s inability to capture the literal aspects of the Oasis as simulacrum, to understand the world’s fixation with videogames in this future as a product of desolation. Overtrying to be hopeful, the movie steps around an important theme in the novel, which explores something dark about our modern society and the mass-loneliness advance technology is creating.

Social commentary in the novel is deftly weaved through exciting action challenges. The book also succeeds in making our protagonist (avatar) Wade/Parzival both socially awkward and cool. The last third of the novel avails too much deus ex machina, and an anticipated final encounter feels rushed and superficial after the novel’s earlier insightfulness (Spoiler Alert: Only reality is real). Overall, Ready Player One is an electric read, the experience of a complete future universe both exciting and tragic.

edenDo you believe everything you hear? Joss was a troubled teenager before ever telling his psychiatrist that his bicycle collision with a random car door was “meant to be.” He is the child of upper-middle class professionals who attends a private high school in multidimensional Cambridge, Massachusetts, but he also grew up angry and defiant, and he just got out of two years lock-up in juvie for setting the neighbor’s house on fire. His meeker younger brother killed himself; a tragedy over which the father has fallen into dissociation and the mother has become an irreconcilable bitch who holds Joss responsible. Yet, in the hospital, recovering from the concussion he suffered, Joss feels euphoric, spiritually renewed and he has begun to hear the OM.

The OM is the primordial vibration of the universe. It sounds like a cosmic choir chanting and could anciently be heard by all humans, before the mythical fall of creation. To this point Michael Sussman’s novel Crashing Eden is still a fairly phenomenological YA drama. We are not sure yet if this is a journey into myth and the supernatural, or the story of a depressed kid having a psychotic break.

The psychiatrists seem to have a clinical grasp of what’s wrong (or too right) with Joss. They explain that the OM is an auditory hallucination brought on by Joss’s state of manic bliss. Euphoria and delusions of grandiosity are common to mental patients Joss’s age. Joss’s belief that he has developed special powers, coinciding with the anniversary of his brother’s suicide, is likely a function of Joss’s mind protecting itself from sadness and guilt. Is Joss’s life changing experience of the OM going to be real within the context of the novel, or a maddness through which Joss will exercise his grief? The author will make a choice for the reader about what kind of novel this is going to be – a story about mental illness and family discord, or a sci-fi, superpowers fantasy that will suspend all physical rules to deliver readers beyond the universe to the feet of God. Because Joss believes that something universally significant is happening, and his conviction is about to be substantiated by a series of stupefying narrative events:

Event: Earth is hurtling toward intersection with a vast black hole in outer space, portending the end of the world.

Event: Joss encounters a pair of grad school scientists who have built a wearable device that amplifies the OM. They also enlist Joss in distributing the devices to young people everywhere, in the hope of saving the world by re-syncing it with the primordial vibration of the universe.

Event: the human mission to restore honestly and goodness to the world angers God Himself, who irrationally rains down catastrophic blizzards, earthquakes, and plagues.

Final Event: Joss teams up with the grad students, the ghost of his dead brother, and other friends who have developed supernatural abilities. Joss and company fly as spirit bodies through the black hole to confront God and talk-therapy Him through his attachment disorder related to his own mother abandoning him thirteen billion years before.

Anyone who took a high school English class is probably familiar with Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s concept of poetic faith, described as the willing suspension of disbelief. This refers to a reader’s willingness to accept a fictional imagining of the world (or world’s) on the author’s terms. Crashing Eden raises a question about the point at which fantasticism in speculative fiction breaks the readers willing suspension of disbelief. Sci-fi and fantasy stories freight a lot willingness before the cover page is ever turned, and, of course, suspension depends entirely on the individual reader’s cooperation.

There are a couple common ways the fantasy in a genre story gets broken. 1.) The RULES of the Impossible World are implausible in the real world, e.g. the wizard about to cast his death curse conveniently has a heart attack and dies. 2.) The RULES of the Impossible World are inconsistent, e.g. only a wizard can do magic until a non-wizard steals the magic wand. Despite other weaknesses, Crashing Eden actually passes both of these tests. After the on the level looking early chapters, Sussman wends a fairytale path, but there are no early conceits, no limits on the contrived reality that prevent the story from traveling beyond the beyond. So why does Cashing Eden not entirely work? In the druthers of your humble reviewer, its gradually elaborate fantasy simply gets too far out.

If the issue is not broken disbelief, perhaps we could call it cognitive estrangement from the breadth of Sussman’s fantasy world. We can still give up on a story if at some intangible juncture its fantasy proposal feels pointless. Too fantastic. Too weird. There are no doubt other readers for whom legends given authenticity, superpowers employed to punch-out God, and the undisputed existence of God at all, is an exhilarating reading experience. And Sussman deserves credit for giving young readers a positive parable about redemption, healthy self-forgiveness, and celebrating ethics of peace while never ennobling a particular religion. The book is also slyly funny and the teen hero is complex. To my taste, I would have liked the novel to continue in the direction of teen-with-a-mental-problem, and the fantastic parts to be something Joss subconsciously invented as a recovery tool. A little more science and not so much fiction, please. In words attributed to sci-fi author Damon Knight: “Alice In Wonderland, good. Weird Alice In Wonderland, good. Weird Alice In Weird Wonderland, not good.”

 

simonSimon has a millennial age secret. He is gay and he is not ashamed of it. A 17-year-old suburban white kid with close friends and a chummy, functional family, Simon is not so fearful about being socially ostracized. His Gen Z size worry seems to be that people he already trusts to accept homosexuality will make his coming out a “big deal.” What is at stake for gay Simon in a post-acceptance era is that his differentness from the hetero default will eclipse the adult identity he is still in the process of constructing, and that people who would otherwise completely approve of his sexual preference, will appropriate their associations with him for their personal agendas.

As a coming-out novel, Simon Vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda, written with soaring emotional intelligence by Becky Albertalli, approaches the subject rather different than the kind of young adult material of my 1980’s teen years. If there were coming-out stories, I did not read them. What I remember is clunky afterschool TV specials like What If I’m Gay? and The Truth About Alex. In both of those stories, which intended to present an affirming message about homosexuality, a high school jock’s closetedness is exposed through accidental circumstances, unleashing havoc on girlfriends, families, and sympathetic friends. In subtext, coming-out was audacious and reckless. Were teenagers of the era ready for The Truth? Where I grew up the only thing these specials produced were homophobic punchlines in the locker room.

Closeted Simon, growing up in present-day suburban Atlanta, has been engaging in an anonymous online romance with a mysterious boy from the same high school, going by the faceless moniker Blue. Simon is not a jock but a theater kid with a popular personality. A less popular and more awkward classmate, Martin, happens upon a school library computer display of Simon and Blue’s private homosexually revealing emails, which Simon accidentally forgot to close. Martin is not even homophobic, but he is a conniver and he threatens to abuse the secret unless Simon helps Martin get the attention of a female friend who is way out of Martin’s league. When the girlfriend does not show romantic interest, Martin posts a vulgar, fake coming-out confession on behalf of Simon to the high school’s gossip blog, and also hints at outing Blue. Simon might try to deny the gay truth, but instead our Twenty-first Century hero reluctantly accepts it an opportunity to start coming-out publicly. Some taunting and humiliation comes down from the jock clan at school, but mostly what is unleashed on Simon is a series of embarrassing endorsements. A dozen straight kids make a point of saying they support him. His BFF’s pick out guys they think are boyfriend prospects and squabble over who got to be first told. Teachers stand on guard for bullies. A lesbian couple hugs Simon and hands him their phone numbers. One girl reassures him that Jesus still loves him. Simon tolerates the undue attention, but he worries that the hullaballoo will somehow collaterally uncloset Blue. Will he lose Blue after his own carelessness with the library computer has set off a chain of events that might include schoolmate’s being so determined to embrace gay people, they will shortcut Blue coming-out on his own terms?

In Simon’s generally enlightened middle-class suburbs, one coming to terms with one’s identity can be just as scary, or risky, or embarrassing as it ever was. Albertalli has released a version of the coming-out story that updates the order of consequences. Simon is not ashamed of being gay, but he anticipates the unfairness of people coming to know him as that one thing. Before he has even had any real sexual experience, he will be redefined as his sexual preference. As Simon writes to Blue, “Do you ever feel locked into yourself? …Sometimes it feels like everyone knows who I am except me.” If Simon comes out, will his would-be allies receive him as he truly is, or will they impose some new version of himself he does not even know yet? Simon, version 2.gay ?

What is so fresh about the Simon character is that as he experiences typical teen rites of passage, he is also emotionally mature enough to recognize sexual preference as one part of himself. “I’m tired of coming out. All I ever do is come out. I try not to change, but I keep changing, in all these tiny ways. I get a girlfriend. I have a beer. And every freaking time, I have to reintroduce myself to the universe all over again.” Albertalli is suggesting that all teenagers reach a stage at which the adult they are struggling to find within feels like a secret identity. That every teen feels like the person they are perceived to be is a disguise over the person they actually are. That it is a universal experience to come-out as someone other than who family and peers recognize. “I don’t know how to tell them something like this and still come out feeling like Simon. Because if they don’t recognize me, I don’t recognize myself anymore.” Albertalli’s suburbs are progressive, but imperfect.

Progress has another modern consequence, as demonstrated by people in Simon’s orbit who use his sexual identity like an invisible token that can be invested into some other enterprise. As when Simon describes his coming-out to his family on Christmas morning:  “I guess it’s about what I expected. My mom’s asking about my feelings and my dad’s trying to turn it into a joke. Alice is getting political…” What Simon intuitively fears is that his differentness is something other people will treat as an object that may be taken from his hands. And it is. Martin, a kid who cares about his own gay brother and marches in a Pride parade, selfishly outs Simon on the gossip blog thinking that while it might be embarrassing it would be relatively inconsequential. Simon has to chew out Martin: “You don’t get to say it’s not a big thing. This was supposed to be mine. I’m supposed to decide when and where and who knows and how I want to say it… You took that from me.”

Recalling the good old 80’s again, I am reminded of a friend who was forced out of the closet at age fourteen when his father caught him messing around with another boy in a tent. Not only did the father make the remainder of his teen years a torment, he became a pariah among his classmates and community. No doubt ostracization still happens to gay and genderqueer kids, but the queer stigma in most American places is fortunately becoming relic. Simon is less concerned with people disliking him or being violent towards him, than he is in being defined by his society in a way that is both narrow and manipulable.

My initial reaction to the Simon novel and its adjacent movie adaptation was: Hasn’t the teen coming-out thing been done enough? But, in fact, I am hardpressed to find a story about a teenage protagonist coming-out actually made into a major studio film. Even if the accomplishment is tardy, teenagers will love Love Simon’s thoughtful humor. The screenplay is a loose adaptation of the book, and cleverly executed given that the source material is about 1/3 epistolary (those email exchanges). It successfully regenerates most of the same dramatic beats with excellent young actors. It does not quite arrive at the post-acceptance angle portrayed in the novel. Instead of peers looking out for Simon, the movie’s drama leans on alienation, misconception, and, like the old days, making the gay teen seem responsible for his own victimization. Although, at the end Simon’s classmates rally around him. And Simon’s relationships with his parents are more fully realized. The movie was emotionally touching and I recommend it.

Simon Vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda is a radical coming out novel. Because what is more salient now in our culture is not gay-or-straight, but the lingering requirement of a person to have a static sexual identity at all, or the requirement that one should have to articulate one’s sex life to the whole homo sapien demos. These issues are still confusing at a time when people are, for the most part, accepting of homosexuality, and people who are publicly unaccepting often become social pariahs themselves. Tolerance, fortunately came to sound too patronizing, and today in America acceptance might be said to imply cis-chauvinism, even when the accepting party’s intentions are good. Because knowing what sort of sex partner another person prefers, or knowing whether the person considers them self only male or female, is no longer an acceptable method of knowing the person. As it reads in one of Blue’s emails to Simon, “You can memorize someone’s gestures but you can never know their thoughts… people are like houses with vast rooms and tiny windows.”

 

 

 

 

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7567On the occasion of a major motion picture adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time 56 years after its publication, I decided to tesser through the fifth dimension back to 1962 to learn about the novel’s apparent durability among middle-grade literati. What I discovered is a mid-generational artifact wedged right between the 60’s feminist movement and McCarthy era preoccupations.

Meg is a twelve-year-old science nerd and bullied weirdo at school. However, at home she is the fulcrum of her weirdo science nerd family, including her unusual five-year-old brother, Charles Wallace, who hides his amazing intellectual gifts from other children. After Meg’s father, a physicist, mysteriously vanishes during a top secret experiment, a trio of intergalactic ferry-like women – Mrs. Who, Mrs. Which, and Mrs. Whatsit – arrive offering to help find him. They lead Meg, Charles Wallace, and a teenage friend, Calvin, on a dangerous mission to rescue the father, and introduce the children to the Tesseract, a method of space travel that involves folding (or wrinkling) time. From a luminous spot in the cosmos, the children are shown Camazotz, a dark planet shrouded by a malevolent cloud called The Black Thing and inhabited by people whose minds are controlled by IT. The authoritarian IT, is a disfleshed, mechanical brain, imposing total social conformity among Camazotz population. IT also holds Meg’s father prisoner. Meg and the other children are the only beings capable of traveling through The Black Thing to Camazotz, and risk being indoctrinated into ITs ethos of homogeneity. Through Meg’s journey two major themes emerge, the indicated one, appointing a young girl as progressive protagonist and hero of individualism, the other a subtextual bulwark of anti-communist zealotry and prevailing conservative values.

Meg begins the story as a hesitater and social outcast among her peers. Because she does not fit it, she is considered stupid, (a missummation also applied to Charles Wallace). Although, the three missuses celebrate Meg’s differentness and individual gifts, ultimately saving her family and the world from galactic evil is something she accomplishes alone. They provide the vehicle of the Tesseract, the mission, and the encouragement, but Meg’s strongest tool is her inner ability to overcome self-doubt. That is the novel’s timely, broad-minded wrinkle.

Within the same pages a second, less forward-looking theme lurks. The nebulous Black Thing is slowly encompassing planet Earth, as it has to completion the less resistant planet Camazotz, a name which happens to rhyme obliquely with communist. Citizens of Camazotz live in identical suburban houses, where all children play games in unison and parents fearfully obey an average routine. The Black Thing suppresses individuality itself, replacing its importance with the false bliss of social equality. Camazotzians are not starved, or deprived of civil rights. Sameness, civic efficiency and the provision of equal economic resources are depicted as worse deprivations. “[Meg] held on to her moment of revelation. Like and equal are two entirely different things.” Children of Camazotz are bereft because they have been absorbed philosophically by IT. The literal brain IT takes over independent thought making a person not just part of IT but turning them into an IT, and IT takes over Charles Wallace’s mind. Depriving Charles Wallace of self-determination is described as an act hate, so Meg resolves to give Charles Wallace what ITs vacuous equality cannot – love. That is, nonsectarian Christian love, which is moderately referenced throughout novel.

Besides Economic Liberalism and Christianity, there are other quaint ideological convictions touted. Intellectualism is a bogeyman as demonstrated when Charles Wallace, the most erudite of the children, falls into ITs mind control most easily because he has the arrogance to think he can defeat IT with logic alone. Meg’s father admits to irresponsible scientific exploration of the Tesseract – “we’re children playing with dynamite” – a reference to nuclear weapons. Also, L’Engle’s composition has a formal, fairy tale cadence that was perhaps the culture of children’s books in 1962 – a lot of dears and darlings and Faaathers.

This brings me, in brief, to the 2018 movie version. The adaptation is successful in imagining a fantastic special effects vision of the novel, distinguishing the characters, and abandoning some of L’Engle’s passé ideology. The movie seizes on the spirit of Meg learning to take pride in being an individual and turning her anger, stubbornness and impatience into strengths. And the filmmakers grow L’Engle’s feminist seed into an inclusive and multicultural universe. There are some deficiencies. The acting is broadly terrible, and L’Engle’s Christian sentiment has morphed into New Agey child-of-the-universe-summon-your-inner-light platitudes that feel drippy. But the best parts of the movie would not exist without the best parts of the original novel.

On the whole, A Wrinkle In Time is a novel from which young people will still draw relevant positivity. It is a story about a girl possessing the ability to solve problems with interior powers even the immortal, interstellar traveling women do not have. Maybe its 1962 first-world triumphalism does not hold up, but the message of children, particularly female children, learning to respect themselves is enduring.

atswimAt-Swim-Two Birds is simply Flann O’Brien’s novel about an Irish student novelist writing a novel about an unfinished novel. Do you twig? The student’s spare-time literary activity includes spontaneous composition of the story of a lazy novelist who’s misused characters, drawn largely from Irish folk legends, animate and conspire to write their own novel in which their creator is tortured and tried for his abuses. In between the folk legend sections, O’Brien’s young author is browbeaten by his middle-class uncle who criticizes the student for his seeming disinterest in studying.

Metafiction may be a particular taste, as is toiling through O’Brien’s long adaptations of Irish verse and writing styles. I confess I wanted give up on this book early on, it was so bewildering. But sticking with O’Brien’s mythical fantasies and stream-of-conscious writing came to feel rewarding. Once I gave up on my inclination to understand every reference to Irish myth or modern Dublin slang term, I was able to absorb that O’Brien created something of epic imagination and wit, even while abandoning all writerly responsibilities toward character and plot. I’ve never been able to slog through the impenetrable language of James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, the style of which O’Brien appears to imitate or parody. Maybe At-Swim is Finnegan’s Wake lite. I know I’ve never before successfully read an Irish novel like this, or finished one feeling as edified. O’Brien’s humor is wicked, and his gifts for description and prose are extraordinary.

[short story first published in Aethlon: The Journal of Sport Literature, XXXII:1, Fall 2014/Winter 2015]

In my estimation, Oz Feldman, may he rot in Hell, is a tall asshole and an over-ranked yutz. Can I beat him in this match? In my judgment, yes, should I be blessed to survive all three sets. The Lord, may he guard my end of the court, knows I’ve beaten every other boy at Chazak Tennis Camp. So, today it’s Oz versus Benji, the last survivors of the sweaty summer’s end tournament. Also the last day of Chazak for me or Oz, ever. The old men don’t allow you back after summer of 11th grade. Why? I don’t know.

People are watching from benches outside the fence, my father and the other camp coaches, all the camp boys. Even Mama, may God protect her, got the afternoon and is standing along the opposite fence in her TJ Maxx uniform. Under her headcovering she’s smiling at me. I can’t remember the last time I saw her doing that. She’s as far away in the park as she can be from Father, may a tree fall on him.

Oz looms over my opposite baseline, the destroying angel with a black kippah and colorless eyes. He has a one hundred-ten foot arm span and a one hundred-ten mile an hour serve. It’s true, because Father measured. As Oz and I warm up the ball the humidity makes wet mittens of my hands around the racket. I’m remembering what Father, may he choke on his tongue, instructs me on how to play Oz. The ugly giant’s all serve. Don’t allow this dull nephilim Oz to drag me at his advantage into set tiebreakers. Prove to Father I’m not afraid of a big-serving bully.

Some camp boy’s gray-bearded grandfather just climbed up into the seat of the chair-umpire.

“Maysters ready? Play!”

May God murder my enemy.

 

I didn’t wake up this morning with a plan to rely on God to win. I heard it raining and I waited awake with my eyes closed willing the rain to stop. Guess what? It worked. Then I listened for an alarm of rap music from my computer tablet. I had a plan to beat Oz. I repeated the plan in my head.

Estimate the course of his serve at first racket contact. Position myself far behind the baseline. Bounce on my sneakers a little. Shift my weight to the incoming ball side. Don’t try too much on his firsts, just block the ball back. Judge the weight of his over-ranked serve. Attempt a short slice to his backhand, low. Imagine hitting it to the serpents Oz has for shoelaces.

I toggled snooze on my tablet when rap came on and listened for my older sister turning off the shower. I told myself to stop plotting the match because too much would make me meshugah in the head. Instead I thought about Jazmine, the girl on the bus and her big pair of black-girl kishkas. I started to jerk off. For a moment, I thought of how Rabbi back in B’nei Mitzvah class used to say, “Zis iz a zin!” I stopped touching myself when I heard my sister, may she broil from rug burn, close her bedroom door. After I got up from bed I made sure the hallway was clear between my bedroom door and our bathroom for getting there only in my underwear. I skipped shaving because Oz Feldman has a narrow line of a beard that outlines his donkey face. It’s a line that makes him look like he’s passing for twenty. When I went back to my bedroom I put on tallit kattan, which is Hebrew for a Gentile undershirt with tzittzit tassels hanging off the corners. I picked a t-shirt to wear over with a design of Drake. Who is Drake? He’s the black-Jewish rapper and someone I hoped black girls on the bus would think under-ranked. I tied on the coolest sneakers there are from TJ Maxx and I sprayed on Midnight Rooster men’s body spray, which Mama agreed to get me for Hanukkah if I promised don’t wear it on Shabbat.

When I went to the kitchen I discovered that Mama left a skillet of blintzes stuffed with quark. What is quark? It’s kosher type cheese in which we Jews leave out any flavor. In my judgment, Mama should have been in the kitchen on the day of my championship match to make me something better, like she used to. I left all the cold blintzes on a plate for my sister, in case she’s just wicked enough to love the taste of dreck. Only then did I find Mama’s Post-it note left on our kitchen doorpost – May G_d help my boychik hit the yellow ball with all his heart today. Attaboy-chik! Upon review, I ruled I’d been a mean judge toward Mama. Long live Mama! She’s under-ranked.

I knocked on my sister’s bedroom and asked through the door if she could give me money. She said, “Fuck no, Benji,” and I said, “May God be as sweet to you, Bitch!” Back in my bedroom I put a kippah on my head, one with a Red Sox ‘B’ in back, and clipped it to a clump of my curls. In the mirror I judged how much the day’s humidity was making my bristly hair platz out around the kippah. I considered Oz Feldman, may he shake hands with a vise, and how he could probably wrap his long fingers all the way around my skinny neck. Then I wondered if girls think boys who play tennis are sexy, followed by realizing I couldn’t name any famous Jewish tennis stars.

Yesterday, driving me home from tennis camp, Father, may he steer off a cliff, said at seventeen he was horny for Steffi Graf and Chrisy Evert-Lloyd. Being seventeen myself I named Father several girls in pro-tennis I’ve seen on tv who are beautiful. But the girls I named happen to be black girls and Father ignored me like I didn’t say any names at all. I judged right there in the car that Father has chutzpah. In my estimation, only a man with chutzpah would go to the honor of nicknaming himself Great Jewish Philosopher of Tennis, especially if all he knows about tennis is instructing high school boys to play. Said the Great Jewish Philosopher of Tennis, may a yellow ball get lodged in his throat, that when two good tennis players are fairly paired, not strength wins, but reflexive instinct. Father said at Benji versus Oz in the Chazak camp championship I should play like a fox versus a bear in a cage. Do you know what he meant? I didn’t. Then he asked me if I thought my instinct for the subtleties of tennis were strong enough. He asked if I thought I had practiced the right things. But he didn’t wait for me to answer either of those questions. Instead Father kept talking. Said the Great Jewish Philosopher of Tennis, may a bee sting him on the tonsils, that a true tennis champion is master of reflexes, learning to repeat the correct techniques correctly time after time. I wondered if it’s honest for me to love the advice and hate the advisor. Then Father said what works in tennis is the same as in life with our religious rituals, that repetition itself defeats distractions.

This morning I looked on my dresser at the blue, velvet bag containing my tefillin – tiny handwritten pieces of Torah in two small, black boxes. I’m expected to tie the boxes to my arm and forehead every day. Tefillah were a gift from my parents, both of them, on my Bar Mitzvah. Guess what? I skipped strapping on black boxes and reciting Shema this morning, just like most mornings this summer. I didn’t do tefillin, which is bullshit, just to make parents happy, like I did when Father still lived at home. Instead I ruled that repeating an over-ranked blessing doesn’t do bubkes. God, like a chair-umpire in tennis, takes no side between me and my enemies. I decided instead to keep calling my own shots. When my sister went back into the bathroom, I went into her bedroom. On her bureau was a pink charity box she made when she was little in Hebrew school. I stole change for McDonald’s breakfast and left our apartment.

 

I shoved an empty sausage McGriddle box in my tennis bag. Yes, every Jew already knows that McGriddle is forbidden treyf, but this morning I called it good. I then used the tennis bag to block the aisle side of my bus bench. I pulled out my tablet on which I had an email that the new issue of Black-lete Sports Magazine was up for me to read during the bus ride.

Everyday this summer my bus to Chazak stopped at West Boston Boulevard where a facacta lady named Cynthia got on. All of us on the bus had to wait the rest of our lives while Cynthia paid her bus fare in small change.

“Hello, Benny!” Cynthia said, excited like she hadn’t seen me for ten years instead of a day. Her crazy hand wiggled like her plastic rain bonnet in the wind. Have I made it clear that I had previously ruled there would be no more rain today? I waved back barely in Cynthia’s direction making it clear to her I was concentrating on a post in Black-lete. Cynthia sat her fat tochis in an empty bench across from me and pulled out her leather-bound Bible. “I like that you’ve been riding my bus every day, Benny.” A couple weeks earlier she introduced herself, without me ever asking. That day I felt sorry for her and surrendered Benji, but she heard it wrong. No point in ever trying to fix her. She took off her rain bonnet and wrapped gray hair pigtails around her craggy neck. “A boy at the T-stop stole my bus pass, Benny. He looked Chinese.” As I’ve mentioned, I judged Cynthia to have been facacta and weird. She smelled moldy, like the boiler room of my apartment building. She had a thin nose like a butter knife and she wore big, lepish glasses that made it look like I was seeing her eyes through a microscope. “My daddy gave me a roll of nickels to pay the bus driver, Benny. Last night I prayed to Jesus to forgive the Chinese boy.”

“So, good for you.” Why did I say anything at all? I don’t know.

“You’re a sweet-pea, Benny. In my prayers I told God you stare at big-booby black girls on your computer. My daddy says white boys should only date white girls. I like that smell of perfume you wear everyday, Benny.”

I happened to be studying a picture of black women volleyball athletes in sexy sports-bras. “My parents instruct me only date Jewish girls,” I said.

“Jesus was Jewish,” Cynthia said.

“So, good for Jesus.”

The bus stopped in front of the pawnshop on Washington Avenue. Beautiful Jazmine and her two girlfriends stepped on, all of them black, and making a head-turning racket down the middle of the bus. The three of them wore matching, red, collared-shirt uniforms everyday, some office supply store logo on their left tits. I had never overheard names of the other two, just Jazmine. I judged the girls to be loud, mean and fucking gorgeous. Two of them bounced down in the bench behind Cynthia. In the bench behind me, Jazmine put her sneakers up and lounged against the window. Her red shirt collar stood up to her gold hoop earrings and she held her phone so close to her face she swabbed the surface with her long eyelashes.

“Hey, Skinny Jewish Boy,” one of twosome called out. She could only have been asking me, “Don’t your mother feed you? You look like my toothbrush is wearing a yamaha.”

“What do you know about wearing Drake on your shirt, Boy?” the other girl teased. “Hasn’t nobody told Jewish people yet that Drake is gay? You must be gay!” Her benchmate almost toyted-over it was so hilarious.

“Don’t be mean, girl,” the second one laughed. “Maybe Jewish Boy’s not gay. I mean, everyday he sits in the seat across from his retarded girlfriend.” Cynthia just sat smiling and pressing her gigantic eyeglasses against the words of her Bible.

“Hey, Old White Lady, have you and your Jewish boyfriend done the nasty yet?”

“Girl, I bet these two want to have a threesome with Drake in between!”

Maybe Cynthia was happy being an oblivious, Bible memorizing idiot, but the two sexy anti-Semitic girls pissed me off. I turned around in my bench at them and shouted back, “May you both fall in the ocean and float away on your big, black tits!” This riled those two girls up, but not Jazmine.

Never looking up from her phone, Jazmine said her first indirect words to me, ever. “You three all just shut up, please. Let’s not have a race riot here on the freaking city bus.” Jazmine’s friends followed her orders and made less loud gossip of people. Then Jazmine said to me, “If it matters, I doubt Drake is gay, McGriddle.” She estimated me confused and pointed over the back of my bench at the empty breakfast box, which was poking out of my tennis bag. “Just ignore those two hookers, but be careful what you say about a black girl’s boobs. We take them seriously.”

I judged Jazmine’s advice to be good, but couldn’t think of what to say back. Was it a miracle of God that she kept talking to me?

“I’ve seen you before on the bus with your tennis racket. You play every day?”

“Everyday in summer,” I answered. “Camp Chazak.”

“Oh, boy, I could never learn to play tennis there because I could never learn to pronounce it.”

I laughed a little. “You could never play tennis at Chazak because they only allow boys.”

“Excuse me on your religion, but that’s old fashioned and fucked up.”

May God bless Jazmine. She’s so pretty. “You’re judgment is accurate on that,” I said.

“You any good at tennis?” she asked me, also texting on her phone.

“Playing the summer championship today. I’m best at it.”

“Okay, Boy,” she said, “don’t be too all that, now.”

Don’t misjudge me. I meant to tell Jazmine that tennis is the best thing I can do. It’s the one thing I judge myself to be opposite a klutz. I’m told that back in the good old days my father was a teenage tennis champion as well as the top student in his class at Greater Boston Modern Orthodox Day School. Who did I hear that from? My father, of course, and he doesn’t let people forget. In the worse new days, at the exact same school, I’m not on the top of anything. But, at tennis camp? Almost no one can beat me, and I’m not letting you forget either. Tennis is the thing about which I give a shit that certain people such as my father are impressed.

Jazmine stared out the bus window and I stared at her soft looking neck, perfect as the pumpernickel my Mama used to make.

“So, where do go in your life to meet Jewish girls, McGriddle?”

“Oh, they allow girls in Post B’nei Mitzvah Club. We meet on Kosher Taco Tuesdays.”

“That’s the girls you date?” Jazmine’s huge brown eyes stared straight at me. “Which ever ones show up on Taco Tuesday?”

Was Jazmine making fun of me in a more professional way?

“Come on now, McGriddle.” Her fingers summoned me. “This bus is moving slower than my grandma walks. I need some boring conversation. Talk to me.”

“So far I haven’t been on many dates.” Don’t ask me why I volunteered such an embarrassing fact to Jazmine because I don’t know. Upon review, I suppose she made me feel okay telling her anything, instead of feeling like an asshole. “I’ve never been on a date with an African-American girl.”

“You don’t like black girls?”

“No, that’s not what I mean,” I said. “I don’t judge. Like when my Father was backhand drilling me yesterday, he’s also one of our tennis camp coaches, a couple of really pretty African-American girls were walking through the park along the court. My father noticed me noticing them instead of paying attention to his drills. He said his son should forget coming to like svartza girls.”

“Svartsa? That word sounds like I don’t want to hear what it means.”

“My Father said he thinks it’s okay to friends with you, but he’ll never give blessing to marry one.”

“Excuse me. If you want to marry a black girl, how are your parents going to stop you?”

“It’s just not done. Which I rule ridiculous, because my Father’s the most over-ranked role model of halahkah.”

“Okay, beg your pardon?”

“Halahkah means, like, religious way of life,” I explained. “In addition to being all knowing about tennis, my father talks like he’s a professional on the practice of all religious rituals. Meanwhile, last year he moved to a different house and he has his own blonde lady now, who he says is half-Jewish.”

“You got a mom?”

“I got one. She used to stay home. Do you know a guy named TJ Maxx? Now she takes care of him all day. Mama says my father met his blonde half-shiksa when he was still living with us. My father tells me and my sister, no, he didn’t meet her until after he moved out. He says he tried to get my Mama to stay on her medicine and stop being negative all the time. He says sure, a man honors his wife by keeping her happy, but not so much that he has to always be depressed. And, under halahkah, the wife’s not divorced until the husband is nice enough to give her a piece of paper that says You are hereby free of me. Father says he already gives Mama all his his money and she just wants to take away his children, to punish him for wanting to end their marriage in which she refused to be happy. In my judgment, Mama is sadder now. She says my father’s being a bully. She’s taking him to religious court, but in my estimation the odds are against whatever she wants, Jewish law seems like an even bigger bully. I say mazel tov to my father’s new happiness and his over-ranked half-shiksa. May they be buried alive together.

Jazmine nodded her head. “If we’re keeping it real, McGriddle, I’d say the same thing to my mom. Mine used to beat up on me every time she was drinking. Then, when I got big enough to kick her ass back, she started beating up on my little brother. Finally, I was just like, bye, we’re leaving. I took my brother and we went to my grandma’s house for good. The other day my mom text me, ‘You have to come back, Jazmine, because I say.’ I told her, ‘Hell no.’ She can’t make me do anything. You know, last Sunday in my grandma’s church, the pastor was talking about David and Goliath. I heard that story about a million times growing up, but I realized Sunday they’ve been telling it wrong.”

“What’s to get wrong? The kid kills the giant with one smooth rock served out of his sling. Then David cuts Goliath’s head off, and all the Jews learn God will always protect them from their enemies.”

“That’s like what they always taught me in Sunday School too, McGriddle, but I started thinking David and Goliath means something else.”

“The Bible says it right here in First Samuel,” Cynthia chimed in across the aisle. She was already on the exact page. Maybe I was wrong and Cynthia was hearing everything people were saying. She followed the scripture with her pointy witch nose and read it loud enough for the whole busful to hear. “The Lord, who delivered me out of the paw of the lion and out of the paw of the bear, will deliver me out of the hand of this Philistine, Goliath.”

“I guess your girlfriend knows her Bible,” Jazmine said.

“Then you should guess again,” I argued, “because she’s not my girlfriend,”

“Come on, McGriddle, I’m just joking with you.” Jazmine’s smile was so sweet, but I untrusted her a little. “Besides, we’re friends now.”

“What do you mean David and Goliath means something else?” This was me defending Jewish tradition. Imagine.

“I’m just saying, when you think about it, why was David so gung-ho to step up and take on Goliath?”

Cynthia read aloud, “I will go and fight with this uncircumcised Philistine, who hath taunted and defied the armies of the living God. Then, Benny, To the man who kills this giant, the king will give his daughter in marriage and make his house free of taxes in Israel. That’s what the white Bible says.”

Jazmine rolled her priceless eyes. “There aint no white Bible and black Bible, Lady.” Then she turned back to me. “Goliath was talking trash about the Israelite’s army, right? He’s all – Come try it David, I’ll tear you up and feed you to chickens. But then it turns out Goliath’s really just slow and stupid. I mean, he stands there while David kills him with one rock. Sitting there, bored, in church I started thinking maybe David was the only one who saw something about Goliath that wasn’t so scary. Same as I saw with my mom. She drinks and beats up my brother, but beating on her children doesn’t make her strong. It’s her weakness. I’m not going to let her hit us anymore. Once you take away her beating people up, she’s got no powers left.”

“I think I know what you mean,” I said, my faith in Jazmine returning, “but say it again, maybe.”

“What I’m saying is maybe David was so freaking brave because he figured out the giant wasn’t really all that. Maybe he figured out Goliath was all talk and David was going to get the girl and the money. Maybe Goliaths are only Goliath because people keep thinking they are.” Then Jazmine’s nose wrinkled up. “Boy, somebody on this bus smells like a lot of rachet perfume.”

Our bus crossed over the three girl’s last intersection with me. On repetitive reflex Jazmine reached up and pulled the overhead cord for the bell. “This is our stop, hookers. See you tomorrow, McGriddle.”

The three girls stood up and tussled off the bus. I wanted to ask Jazmine exactly how she planned to see me tomorrow. There wasn’t time left to tell her I don’t usually ride the bus on Saturdays, on Shabbat. Also, today was last day of tennis camp. Yes, I’d like her to see me again, but couldn’t think so fast of where or when. See her again? I’d like to will that to happen. Maybe then I’d tell her she’s sexy. I also would tell her how I underestimated how many brilliant things she has to say. Long live Jazmine!

Cynthia’s nose ran across her Bible page and she read out loud, “Do not be slothful in zeal, Benny.”

Maybe Cynthia’s was under-ranked too. Jazmine was already gone.

Do you know Brookline Park? That’s where I got off the bus, where Chazak is. Sure, the sun was hot as Hell but the tennis courts were still wet from overnight rain. Father and another coach got there early with battery-powered puddle blowers. We camp boys followed after them with long squeegees. Soon the gray-bearded amateur umpire proclaimed our green, hard surfaces looked dry enough for play. A bunch of bearded father and grandfather types took positions as shot judges on the court lines. Then the gray umpire clambered up behind the stirrups of the tall chair.

 

Oz Feldman, may he be struck by lightning, and I are now hitting the little yellow ball back and forth, the mandatory ten-minute warm up. More people are here today watching me play than ever before. What’s more nervous making than possibly losing is going down the drain while all the world watches, coaches, other boys, parents, my parents. I’d still like to beat this white-eyed creep Oz, but the watchers make me feel suddenly less sure. By all sense Oz is a better tennis player. I can’t hit the ball over him, he’s too tall. I can’t hit the ball past him, he only needs one or two steps to cover the whole court. His giant serve helps him win a lot of free points. Plus he has a better angle and can fire the ball flat over the net, direct past me.

I hate to pray to God for help, and, as much as I hate listening to my father, his damn advice is the best. Don’t be intimidated, Oz is over-ranked. Serve into his body to jam him up. Remember Oz is better at overwhelming opponents with speed on the ball than he is at placing the ball. He lacks precision for the lines. I must use topspin to make the ball dip down to his feet. Wrong-foot him. He’s slower than sour cream. Trap him into changing direction, against momentum. Move him up the court with drop shots. Slice him. Reduce him to what he really is, a big yutz clomping after my sexy, short angles. Sure, I’m not as tall, but I have my own moves.

And, said the Great Jewish Philosopher of Tennis, don’t lose to the watchers. Father’s accurate about that. I estimate fifty percent of these people are praying I flop. Ignore such distractions. Ignore strangers walking dogs through the park, a noisy lawnmower, a helicopter, bugs, little kids roller skating on empty courts, the sun, humidity, shvits dripping into my eyes, hunger, thirst, white lines still slippery after the rain. Still, what Father never taught me is how to turn off the biggest distraction, the voice of a man inside my head always judging, always asking, What if you can’t get to Oz’s serves? What if you choke on every one of your own serves and keep double faulting? Have you ever tried to not think about something? Part of me has to think about what not to think of in order to remember what not to think about. Maybe a true tennis champion knows how, under pressure, to not think at all.

Off the old chair-umpire’s coin toss, Oz gets first service privilege. Of course his first serve is a mortar, and not where anyone else would put it, to my forehand! Plus there’s a crazy inside slice. Probably over a hundred miles per hour. My feet don’t think that fast. I jump left while planting my right sneaker at the same time, and my foot slides on the wet, white line. Then my right knee cocks in and twists as I go down. Where did I land? On the green asphalt, where else, with the inside of my knee.

I roll onto my back and grab my God damn knee. Lying there I cry for the worst pain in the history suffering. For a moment I want to ask God for mercy, but remember how I didn’t tefellin this morning? That’s right, I didn’t say Shema because tefellin is supposed be bullshit. This twisting of my knee is God’s kareth, his penalty for thinking I can do it myself when it was made clear I should reflexively repeat. Today I have underestimated the conditions of God and slippery white lines. When I close my eyes I see nothing but pain. I Shema outloud, “Love the Lord your God with all your soul and might! These words I command you today shall be upon your heart!”

Praying with my eyes shut, I sense a shadow between me and the sun, a shadow dark as the ninth plague of Egypt. When I open my eyes I see the shadow is cast by a leaning skyscraper who has a forehead broad as the Wailing Wall, and a gargoyle face with the thin beard of young rabbi. His dangling shirt tzittzits point towards me on ground. Oz Feldman has rushed to my side from the other end of court, his white, devil eyes full of me. He got over here before the alterkocker umpire, may his dry-court proclaiming bones crumble, and before Father or even Mama.

I can’t stand up on my twisted knee, but Oz bends over like a drawbridge, stretching one giant arm under my neck, the other under my knees, and holds them safe together. Then he lifts my whole body in his arms and carries me like the smooth stone in David’s sling. Yes, Oz Feldman, may no shame come to him, carries me from the green asphalt to outside the fence. There he lies me down across the sideline bench, out of harm’s way. Long live Oz! Today it’s God who is my enemy. Oz Feldman is such a big asshole, he’s been easy to underestimate.