Erin’s parents look a little like wrinkly deflated zombies. Sounds funny to say, but it’s true. There’s not a lot of life in either of them.
In some ways, their row home is a little nicer than mine. They even have a flat-screen TV, a computer, and Internet access, but I wonder how much of that Rod covers, especially since Mr. Quinn has been out of work for a long time and Mrs. Quinn works down at the town hall as a secretary, so she can’t make all that much cash. There are some questions you simply don’t ask in Bellmont, because no one wants to know the answers.
“I’ll get you some more meat” is the most Mrs. Quinn says to me during the meal.
Erin tries to get everyone talking by asking what each of us is thankful for.
“Turkey,” her father says.
“Family,” her mom says.
“Guinness and Jameson,” Rod says.
“Basketball,” I say.
“Finley,” Erin says.
“And Erin,” I say.
“And basketball,” Erin says.
Erin and I look each other in the eyes.
Rod snorts and shakes his head.
We finish eating in silence.
Just as soon as he swallows his last bite of pumpkin pie, Rod leaves.
Mr. and Mrs. Quinn both fall asleep on the couch.
After Erin and I wash and dry the dishes, we go to my house, where we find Pop passed-out drunk in his wheelchair again, clutching Grandmom’s green rosary beads, just like every other holiday, because special occasions make him miss his wife even more.
We present my dad with the plate of food that Erin wrapped up and sit with him while he eats.
“What are you thankful for?” Erin asks Dad.
“That my son has such a good friend,” Dad says. “And for this plate of delicious food too.”
“You two ready for basketball season?” Dad asks.
“You know it,” Erin says.
“Man, I wish I was still playing high-school basketball,” he says. Dad gets this sad faraway look in his eyes, probably because he was dating Mom back then.
No one says anything and Dad finishes eating.
Once his slice of pie is gone, Erin and I go up to my bedroom and climb out onto the roof. We bring my comforter with us, wrap ourselves up into a giant cocoon, and breathe in the crisp fall air, which makes me think of opened refrigerators again.
I had planned to make out with Erin for a half hour straight, because this is the last time we’ll kiss for at least three months. If either of our teams goes deep into the playoffs, it could be four months before I taste Erin’s lips again, so as I run my hands between her shirt and her smooth, strong back, I try to focus on being with my girlfriend tonight and put basketball out of my mind, but I can’t.
“What’s wrong?” Erin finally says. “You’re not into this at all.”
“I’m nervous about tomorrow,” I say.
The wind blows hard and I shiver, even though Erin is on top of me now and her body is very warm.
“Why?” she asks. “You’ve been the starting point guard for two seasons now. Coach loves you. You’re in the best shape of your life, and you’ve worked so hard in this off-season. You’ve done everything you possibly could to prepare. It’s going to be a great year for you. Hard work yields big-time rewards, right? Remember our summer motto.”
When I don’t say anything, Erin says, “What’s going on with you? You’ve been weird for a couple of weeks now. You better tell me now before we break up at midnight or this is going to eat you up for months.”
“Can you keep a secret?” I ask her, because she’s right: I need to talk about this. I know I’m betraying Coach by telling Erin, and I feel guilty about that, but I just can’t keep it in any longer.
“You know I can.”
I stare into her shamrock-green eyes and then, before I can stop myself, I say, “Russ’s parents were murdered.”
“He’s here because his parents were murdered and then he went crazy and had to live in a home for kids with post-traumatic stress. Whenever we’re alone, Russ calls himself Boy21. He says he’s from outer space and that his parents are going to come and pick him up in a spaceship.”
Erin’s mouth opens, but she doesn’t say anything.
“I’m serious. When he came to live with his grandparents, Coach told me everything and asked me to help Russ. Coach was good friends with Russ’s dad. Russ is using a fake last name, because he’s a nationally recruited point guard who used to play in California. Coach wanted me to help Russ assimilate to Bellmont so that he could play ball for us. He’s going to take my position, Erin. I haven’t said anything before about this because Coach asked me not to tell anyone.”
“Wow,” Erin says. “I mean, wow! That explains a lot. He really believes he’s from outer space?”
“I think it might just be an act, but he talks about it all the time.”
“He has an athlete’s body. Anyone could see that,” Erin says. “Why didn’t you tell me about this before?”
“Coach asked me not to,” I say.
“You should’ve told me. I tell you everything. We both know secrets keep people stuck here in Bellmont forever. Do you want to get stuck in Bellmont forever? Or do you want to leave with me?”
“You know I want to be with you. I definitely want to leave this neighborhood.”
Erin seems really pissed, so I say, “I’m sorry. Okay?”
I look up at the sky. There’re too many clouds to see anything.
She’s right about secrets, but Erin knows I do everything Coach tells me to do.
When I feel like the tension’s gone, I say, “I don’t want Russ to take my position.”
“Maybe Coach was just exaggerating? Maybe Russ isn’t that good?”
“I don’t know. That’s the problem. I wish I knew so I could wrap my mind around it.”
Erin kisses the end of my nose. “You don’t even know if Russ is going to show up tomorrow. Right?”
“It doesn’t seem like he really wants to play ball.”
“If he does show, he hasn’t practiced in a long time. He’s not in game shape, so you have the advantage there. Coach would never forget about you—about all the hard work you’ve done for the team, and what you’ve done for Russ too. Coach asked you to be Russ’s friend, and you did exactly that—for Coach. And let’s say, just for the sake of argument, that your worst fear comes true. Even if you lose your starting position—worst-case scenario—Coach will use you as the sixth man, right?”
“I don’t want to be the sixth man,” I say. “I want to be the starting point guard and team captain.”
“Like I said before—play hard tomorrow. Your game’s the only thing you can control.”
I kiss her cheek and she wiggles her body down so that she can rest her head on my chest.
“Russ’s parents were really murdered?” Erin asks me.
“That unfortunately explains why he’s so quiet. I mean, my God. Murdered.” Erin pauses, and then says, “Is that why Coach picked you to help Russ?”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know. I just thought that—well—”
“What?” I ask.
“Forget it,” Erin says.
“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you earlier, but Coach—”
“How did it happen?”
“How did what happen?”
“How were Russell’s parents murdered?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “He doesn’t like to talk about it. I can tell.”
“He doesn’t like to talk about anything,” Erin says.
“I can understand why,” I say, and that seems to end the conversation.
We lie there breathing together for a bit, and I can see my breath in the moonlight.
I feel my heart beating so close to hers.
Erin says, “You do realize that Russ really enjoys being around you? He follows you around all day like a lost puppy. And the way he looks at you. You don’t see it, do you? He likes you. He needs you. You’ve been a good friend to him this year. You’ve been helping him. If he comes out for the team, it’ll probably just be so that he can continue to shadow you this winter. So that you two can continue to hang out.”
“He only follows me because Coach told him to,” I say. “That’s the only reason.”
“No, it’s not, Finley. It’s because you’re a good person. It’s because you’re easy to be around. It’s because you are you. You don’t put demands on people and you never say anything negative—ever. So many people suck the life out of everyone they’re around, but you don’t do that. You give people strength just by being you.”
I don’t think Erin is right, but I don’t say anything about that.
We lie on the roof holding each other until midnight.
We kiss once more on her front steps, after I walk her home.
“Good luck this season,” I say.
“You’ll be great this year,” she says.
“Okay.” I take a step back.
“Do we really have to break up?”
“Just for a few months.”
“Will you be my boyfriend again once basketball season is over?” she asks.
I nod, even though it breaks the rules. In past years I’ve argued that we have to break up for real and that taking a leave of absence from our relationship is not the same as breaking up, because we’d just be thinking about the day when we’ll be reunited, which would distract us from basketball. But the truth is we both know this will really only be a temporary separation. We’re definitely going to spend the rest of our lives together.
“I better go. We need to sleep, rest up for day one,” I say.
She nods once and then goes inside.
I’m a single man.
I’m simply a basketball player—a point guard.
And it’s going to be an interesting season, for sure.
“Sometimes a player’s greatest challenge is coming to grips with his role on the team.”
JUST LIKE EVERY OTHER YEAR, I’m the first one to arrive.
We have the early practice today, so the gym hasn’t been opened up yet. I have to wait outside for Coach to show.
It’s cold, especially since I’m wearing shorts.
The six-seven Wes Reese walks up with his nose in a book that’s covered in brown paper. He tries the door without even seeing me. When he finds it locked he looks up from his book and says, “Hey there, White Rabbit. Didn’t see you.”
“Yo,” I say.
He holds his book up. “Ralph Ellison. Invisible Man. Good stuff.”
I nod even though I’ve never read Ralph Ellison, and, truthfully, I don’t know who he is.
Sir and Hakim show up next and we all slap hands.
More and more players begin to arrive, but no Coach.