Chapter 17: Peter 2:15
Forsaking the right way, they have gone astray. They have followed the way of Balaam, the son of Beor, who loved gain from wrongdoing.
The fast pace since the beginning of the year slowed to a crawl as Mike settled into a routine that made room for his classes, particularly his journalistic efforts, and the first girlfriend of his life. Now, at the age of 20, he had people looking at him to sustain them in some way or the other. These were among his thoughts on a mid-October Saturday as he tossed bread into chilly Brew Pond to feed the ducks and geese in preparation for their long flights.
Donna remained foremost in his mind, and the love he felt for her had grown so powerful that it completed him. Her patience, sense of humor, and mature outlook on life translated well into her molding of him as a partner capable of satisfying her physical and emotional needs. His emergence as this type of man instilled in him a confidence that transcended into his life whereby he approached all his undertakings with a certainty that bred a noticeable charisma within him. He began imagining building a life with Donna after college because he couldn’t imagine a life without her, yet he punished himself every time he bumped into Carol Frazier. Donna deserves better, he reminded himself on a regular basis.
Dr. Brown and Dan Davis also had profound impacts upon Mike’s confidence as he found himself embroiled in a developing story that his gut instinct told him had a chance of defining who he might become as a writer. With the fractured city of Sylvan as his backdrop leading into the hills and valleys of his beautiful college campus, Mike had the settings to mesh two worlds into one and perhaps become an agent of change.
Dr. Colton, too, saw Mike’s raw abilities as a novelist, questioning him and guiding him along the way. She had told him that a fiction-based-on-fact approach was the most difficult task of all in that it required him to see the lyrical potential of people in his midst. At 51, she had been too early for the Great Depression, just in-time for the romance of World War II where she married her soldier, but perhaps too immersed in life for the Civil Rights Movement, and likely the oldest hippie in attendance at Woodstock. She had her opinions which she felt needed to be tempered in light of her advancing years, but more importantly, out of consideration of her position as an educational leader. She needed the Mike’s of the world to be her voice.
John, Andy, and Kurt remained hugely influential and supportive of Mike during this time. Their time together was shaping the crux of his novel which sought to capture the essence of a college student’s life, but it also set all of them back in terms of truly fulfilling their potentials because they were trapped in that world between satisfying their animal urges and building toward a mysterious future. Mike wondered to what extent his emerging clarity on life would evolve if not clouded over by smoke, but he couldn’t or chose not to find that bridge. To this end, he often wondered if his moments of musing over Brew Pond were in some way symbolic. He also knew that with November around the corner, he would have to look elsewhere for a place to meditate.
With the November 6 basketball opener at home, the sixth-floor couples positioned themselves at the half-court bleacher seats early. Little John and Frankie sat apart, but acknowledged the group from several rows up. Hillview’s first three games were scheduled against non-conference opponents, starting with a 7:00 p.m. tip against Kentucky Christian. They had school spirit, but their big reason for being there was to support James Waters.
“Eggs, I thought Water J was starting this year,” Mike inquired after the tip-off.
“He told me something about being a sixth man, so he’ll get plenty of court-time, but he’ll probably come in at about the 15 or 16-minute mark,” John revealed.
True to John’s words, James came into the game with 14:30 left in the first half. The first five times he touched the ball, he swished 20-foot jumpers. The next time he received a pass, the defender took away the space he initially had provided and played him closely. James did a pump fake, dribbled around his defender and went in for a reverse lay-up. He didn’t go back to the bench in the first half, finishing it with 20 points and propelling the Hillview Pioneers to a 15-point half-time lead. Not wanting to divert from his game plan, Coach Bolton again summoned James off the bench with less than 15-minutes left in the game, and he rewarded this decision by picking up where he left off, finishing the game with 36 points and leading the team to a lopsided 85-61 victory.
“I was in the zone, baby!” James greeted the contingent prior to heading to the locker room.
“Man, Water, you were feeling it tonight!” John agreed.
“Eggs, my man, the motherfucking basket was as big as a swimming pool tonight!” James flashed his infectious smile, and before they could react, he gave sweaty hugs to the girls.
“Yuck, James, go take a shower,” Mary laughed.
“That’s all good, but they gonna bottle that sweat one day and sell it to my fans because that’s some million-dollar funk, baby.” He laughed as he headed to the locker room.
James Waters was fond of long showers, and it was 11 o’clock when he felt the frigid November air against his skin as he walked back to the dorms. The night was so silent that the hum of traffic from I-75 could be heard from its perch three miles away. He watched his smoky breath exhale, and with his hands in his pockets, he scrunched his shoulders and braved the cold, trying to find warmth in an insufficient windbreaker. Approaching him from Fitzgerald House, three figures, indistinguishable in the street lamp mist, adopted an urgent pace. One of them called out, “Hey, Waters, what the fuck did you get in math?”
Thursday morning breakfast featured room 619 plus Frankie. They ate vigorously because Maestro’s had closed before the game ended, so there was no post-game meal. There also was no conversation until James Waters joined them, placing his tray next to Mike.
“Water, what the fuck happened to your eye?” John asked as he noticed that James’s left eye nearly was closed shut.
“It ain’t about nothin’. Took an elbow under the hoop, and the shit swelled up on me overnight.”
“Water, I’ve taken some elbows, and the swelling usually starts right away. You looked fine when we talked to you after the game. I don’t even remember you taking an elbow.”
“Yeah, well it’s a fast-paced game, Eggs. White folk don’t understand that because they play in a different time zone.” He forced out a laugh.
“Hey,” Andy asked, “you going to let a doctor look at that?”
“Going to see him now.”
“Can you even see out of that slit?” Kurt asked.
“Nose, I can see one nostril of your big-ass honker, so I’m thinking that counts for 20/20 with regular people. Hey, I can’t eat and talk at the same time.”
James left early to see the team doctor, and everyone’s eyes focused on Frankie who had remained silent during James’s time there.
“You’re one of his roommates,” Mike asked. “What’s your take on this?”
“Ros, your guess is as good as mine. That big ass Negro probably took an elbow, and we didn’t see the start of the damage because of his skin color. He got fucked up pretty bad, though.” Frank looked out the window, contemplative, as if trying to escape the conversation.
Hillview went 3-0 over its opening week, and James continued his scoring onslaught, netting 20 and 31 points over his next two games, making him the third leading scorer in Division II basketball across the nation. His eye injury cost him no down-time, but it remained mysterious to all of those who participated in or were at the game.
Cross Island was the closest township before hitting the state line and a long haul from the other side of the tracks in MacDonald County where Mike grew up. Donna's '72 Plymouth Duster chugged along I-94 as Mike looked absently out the window, reading bulletin boards until she brought him out of his trance.
"I guess this is a good way to get to know each other better," she started. "How do you normally spend your Thanksgiving?"
"Normal might not be the best choice of words. We have been three people co-existing under one roof ever since I can remember. There's probably an obligatory turkey roasting, likely the runt of its litter. The rest of the family is world's away, old country, Canada. If this is anything, it's a way for me to see how normal people do this up."
There was a digestive pause on Donna's end as she searched for something to re-color Mike's picture. " Well, it used to be a bigger deal with my family, but my older brother and sister live out of town, so we're not much different."
"Do you like spending time with your parents?"
"Of course." Donna almost asked the question, but there already was an answer in that Mike posed the question at all."
There was a strained silence for five minutes until Mike said, "Thanks for inviting me. This will be my best Thanksgiving given that I'm spending it with you."
In her fall brown full-length dress, accented with a sweater vest, Donna could have been a postcard for the season. Her hand was warm against his as they walked along the river bank that dotted the Bennett home.
"Your mom is a great cook!" Mike said.
"That's why we're walking," she laughed. "Too much food."
"Your parents seem really nice."
"Well, while we were picking up and doing dishes, my mom told me that you're cute." She raised their held hands high, then down several times. "My dad didn't say anything which is probably a good sign."
"Well, we talked a little football which broke the ice. We're both Lions fans, so we have mutual misery to share," he laughed.
Donna's home was a small Cape Cod with a porch surrounding it and trees everywhere the eye could see, some still sparsely blanketed with brown leaves trying to wave away winter. To the right, Mike got a glimpse of the river between the branches of two bare trees. There was a small dock that kept company with a tiny boat.
Donna followed Mike's eye-line. "There's our yacht! If we're still together in the warmer months, I'll take you for a special ride."
The potential thrill associated with a 'special ride' took a back seat to the word 'if'. He wanted to question her doubts, but he left it alone and felt the cold breeze reddening his cheeks.
As they walked, his mind drifted to his home, a tiny ranch with a cracked cement driveway, grass sprouting from the openings. It was a place where neglect lived and flourished. The crunching of brown leaves brought him to the present, and he noticed that there still were two piles that had been raked but needed gathering. This was where he pushed Donna and jumped in after her.
“Ahhhhh!” she laughed. “You jerk.” She grabbed him and rolled on top of him, pinning down his shoulders. “Say uncle, or I’ll kiss you.”
“Why would I say uncle?” They embraced in the leaf pile, and she kissed him. They rolled on their backs and looked up at the sky, a blue that seemed reserved for them with dollops of clouds that begged speculation.
“Do you ever look at the clouds and let your imagination go?” Donna pointed skyward. “Like that one; don’t you think that one looks like a heart?”
They watched it together for some moments until a seam appeared in the shape, drifting it apart.
“Well, that’s no good,” she laughed. “Now, it’s a broken heart.” She slipped her hand on top of his and squeezed it gently. “There’s so much in the universe that you can’t explain or account for.” She sighed deeply.
Mike was transfixed by her soft, sweet voice and its whimsical tone. It was if her musings were lyrics to a song they were writing. He was content to listen and absorb. He took in the late fall colors of the surviving leaves, some reds and yellows overtaken by the crispy browns, stubbornly providing a sight-line, framing Donna's ‘home’; she called it home, a word-choice which rolled off her lips as emphatically as the wind that whisked in the suggestion of change.