Five Star

by Christopher Lowe

When the old guy hands you the grocery sack full of cash, you realize that maybe you shouldn’t have come after all. For most of your life the days have stretched out at an achingly slow pace, kindergarten ceding to high school so gradually that you’d swear you were near middle age by the time you hit freshman year. Your mother didn’t make things any better with her Okay-But-Don’t nagging. Want to go to a sleepover? Okay, but don’t stay up too late. Signing up for an advanced class? Okay, but don’t overload on those classes; you’re still a young man. Signing up for football? Okay, but don’t think you have to live up to your father’s exploits; you’ll just hurt yourself, and I don’t want to see anything bad happen to you.

That last one, the decision to go out for the team three years ago, is the one that kicked your life into overdrive, the one that sent your freshmansophomorejunior years careening past and placed you here, in this parking lot, three days before the last game of your senior year, with a sackful of twenties crumpled in your fist and an old dude in a sport coat grinning at you expectantly.

They say you’ve got hips. That’s what you’ve read about yourself on the recruiting services, the ones that have tabbed you as a five star player, their highest ranking. On their message boards they say, “Kid’s got hips” and “Quick twitch. Look at those hips” and “We need a corner with hips like that.” You’ve read these things about yourself, printed them out and shown them to your mother, who clucks her tongue and tells you not to get a big head, not to turn your nose up quite so high, but you can still see a nub of excitement elbowing its way through her disapproval.

“I’ll handle your recruitment,” she said, and you agreed, let her field the calls and organize the letters from schools. When the reporters started reaching out, it was she who told them you wouldn’t be committing until after your senior season, that you’d make your announcement at the All-America game (sponsored by Clothing Apparel Brand A), to which you’ve only just received an invitation, and not at the other All-America game (sponsored by Clothing Apparel Brand B and a branch of the U.S. military).

Your coach resisted this arrangement at first, telling her that he was the one with experience in such matters. He is not, of course. None of you have experience with these things. Your coach has never had a player of your caliber, and for all his moralizing and hand-wringing — he has a morality agreement you’ve had to sign each fall before the season begins that stipulates no sex, no alcohol, no drugs, no violence — you wonder how he’d respond to you, his star player, breaking that agreement in a big, blatant way. It’s better that your mother is handling all of this. If things turn south, if your conversation with Toni tonight doesn’t go well, at least she’ll still try to do what’s best for you.

To her credit, she has tried to shelter you from the buzz. It seeps in at the edges of school, though, and when your teammates show you the pages — the ones you print off to show her in turn — you can feel the minutes ticking off the clock a little faster, can feel that second hand whir, can feel the first blossoming edges of the life you want.

It’s not just the recruitment that does it. You’ve felt this way since you stepped foot on the field. Aside from the backyard games with your friends, you’d never played organized ball, but in the opening practice, the coaches recognized your speed. They tried you at receiver first, but your hands, let’s be honest, they aren’t what they need to be, and even in ninth grade you were over six foot two, plenty long enough to play corner in your school’s division. It didn’t take you long to pick up the basics, especially since the defensive coaches were smart enough to just say, “Line up on your man and don’t let him catch the ball.” When you slip into a backpedal, shift your hips — Those hips! they say — and break on a route, the clock speeds up and it’s like you’re not even alive anymore, like the whole thing is just over and done with. One of the articles called your play “effortless,” and you don’t know if that’s entirely correct — you work as hard as anyone else — but it isn’t entirely incorrect, either. There’s a moment when you slip back into coverage when it really is effortless, when the world recedes from your vision, and you can just glide on over to the guy trying to catch the ball, when you can just hop right up in front of him and pluck that ball yourself or, failing that — his hands, they say, if only his hands were better — swat the thing to the turf, and the whistle blows, and dingdingding, everyone’s back there around you again until the next snap, when you can just glide on back again and let the noise fade.

 

The old guy’s looking at you expectantly still, and you realize you’ve zoned out a little bit, that you’ve lost track of time, which is the phrase you use with your mother when you miss curfew these days. “So what do you think?” he says.

“Sounds great,” you say, though you’re not sure exactly what he’s talking about. He breaks into a smile, though, and you stick out your hand to shake, figuring that this is the best way to speed along the whole process. You need the money in the bag. Without the money in the bag, all of this could be swept away, and your life could go back to just the tick-tock-tick of orderliness and routine. Without the money, you won’t even have Toni anymore. With the money, you might still not have her anymore. There’s that conversation waiting to be had, waiting for when you’re done here, and that conversation could go in any direction Toni chooses once you’ve said what you’re going to say.

The old dude shakes your hand back, still grinning, and you wonder if you just unintentionally committed to his school.

 

You met Toni at a party you weren’t supposed to be at, one that got you in trouble with your mother, who said, “You’re too smart for all of this.” And she’s kind of right: you are really smart, and you know better than to do the things you do, but when has that ever stopped anyone before? Napoleon was smart as hell — infantry square, anyone? — but look at the dumb shit he did that ended up tanking his whole deal. When you allow yourself to really think about it, Toni might as well have been named Water L. Oo instead of Antonina Grace Turner. You slid up to her at that party, dipped your hand into the hip pocket of her jeans, and she reared back and hit — not slapped, never slapped with Toni — you, and when you’d shaken loose the punch-induced cobwebs, she’d told you not to fuck with her, that she has brother who taught her to punch, and that she’d be happy to knock the shit out of you again if you ever decided to put your hands on her. Your mother would dislike her on principle — she’s a girl and girls are distractions — but you know that at her core, Toni is exactly the kind of girl your mother would want to raise. You apologized, and it took time — four more parties worth of time! — but eventually she sidled up to you in the hallways between classes, slid her hand into your pocket, and green light go, that was all it took to tumble time along and leave you standing here with the old guy and the money.

“You got a few minutes?” the guy asks. You think briefly of Toni, sitting in her bedroom, not knowing that she’s waiting on your arrival. You can delay that a while, though, so you nod your head to the dude. The two of you get in his car. The interior is all leather and the kind of spit-shine clean that means he pays for detailing all the time. He just sits a minute, and you worry that he might reach over and touch your leg or something, but he turns the key, revs the engine, jerks out of the parking lot and onto Highway 85.

He drives fast, turning that German engine loose, and you wonder if he’ll let you drive it. You’re pretty sure he would, pretty sure he’d hand over the keys and tell you to keep the whole damn car if you asked, but that’s the kind of thing the NCAA would notice, the kind of thing that could get you suspended before you ever play a college game. It’s the kind of thing that could shut down your forward progress, stall you right out and back into the slow trudge of everything that came before your gift asserted itself. Anyway, all of this is about keeping yourself under the radar, about maintaining the direction of your life.

Still, you are the one with the power here. You are the one with the ability to make decisions — to ask for the car or not, to take the cash or not, to commit to the old guy’s team or not. This is power, and power means not slowing down. You’ve never seen a sports car sit idling on the side of the road. Move, you think, and the old guys, foot heavy on the pedal, obliges.

 

Toni likes talking, and you like this about her. She talks when you pick her up in your mother’s Corolla, talks through dinner at the Mexican restaurant where you always take her, whispers in your ear the name of every actor in every movie — lists full damn filmographies in her gravel-husk whisper, enough to get you wrought-iron hard. She talks as you go down on her, pauses her blowjobs to talk, talks between gulps of air as she comes. She talks about everything: her family — three older brothers, dead mother, remarried father, icy stepmother (“Like, brrr, seriously, you get me?”). Her schoolwork ad her teachers and her friends, the car she wants, the cars she doesn’t want, her lunches and breakfasts and the M&Ms she stole from some kid’s backpack, books (“Only book worth burning is shitty ass Fahrenheit 451.“) and TV, the gender restrictive rules that keep her from taking off her top at the beach (“You got tits too, motherfucker, but they ain’t as nice as mine.”), energy efficient lightbulbs, the way paint dries.

All the things of the world come tumbling out of her mouth, and you listen and nod and sometimes say something back, trying not to sound too oblivious to the ideas she’s sprouting. Mostly you just listen because she gets you going with all that talk, revs your engine, and when you’re inside her and she’s meandering through a discussion of the value of sensible gun control, you don’t feel anything at all but the thrust and the clinch that accompanies it. That clinch, that holding at peak-thrust, is enough to make you do pretty much anything to keep feeling that thrust-clinch, thrust-clinch, thrust-clinch, with the soundtrack of her talking just smothering every other last thing, even the knowledge that all of this is temporary. In another month she won’t be able to hide the pooch, won’t be able to pretend to her father or brothers that she isn’t pregnant, knocked up, bun-in-ovened, with child.

 

The old guy stops in the public library’s parking lot. You came here often as a boy, your mother dropping you off for long stretches of your summer. You’d roam the stacks without supervision, reading what caught your eye. Those were the days before the building was wired for internet, so you had no distractions, and though you haven’t set foot in the place in years, you feel a pang of nostalgia that’s tempered by the ever-present desire to run, to get away, to escape from the familiar.

The parking lot is empty but for the old guy’s car, and the library looks like a cave, vast and dark. Its big plate-glass doors reveal nothing of the building’s interior.

“Know where we are?” the old guy says.

“The library,” you say, wanting suddenly to tell him more, to explain your history with this place, though you keep quiet, wait for him to respond.

“The Lawrence D. Profford Central Library.” He drums his fingers on the steering wheel. “Know who “Lawrence D. Profford was?”

You shake your head. It’s getting hot in the car, and you can feel that warmth rising from the leather seats. The realization that they’re heated thunders up on you unbidden. It’s a strange realization. Why wouldn’t these seats be heated? Of course they are. This should not be shocking, but you find yourself shaken, not so much by the knowledge itself as by the fact that this luxury is uncomfortable. You are too warm in here, too cushioned by this gentle heat. A bead of sweat rolls down from your underarm, tickling your side beneath the workout jersey you still wear.

“Larry Profford played for us near seventy years ago. He was a fullback. An All-American. Got his law degree, got money.” He nudges his chin toward the building. “Got that building there named after him. When you get to campus, you’re gonna live in another building named for him, Profford Hall. Finest athletics dorm you’ll find. Latest amenities.”

“Okay,” you say, after a time.

“Son,” he says, turning to face you, “you focus on succeeding as part of our team and the sky’s the damn limit. You can be anything you want to be.” He laughs, shakes his head. “And if you wanna shut down LSU’s receivers for a few years while you do it, we’d be real happy about that.”

“Yes, sir,” you say.

He clucks his tongue, looks at the dark building a while longer. “You ready?” he says, and you say that you are, that he can take you back to your car now.

 

Here is what your mother would say if she knew about Toni: I can’t believe you. I let you play a game, let you do what you want to do, and this is what I get in return? You’re a cliché. The football star and his knocked up girlfriend. You’ve made yourself typical, do you know that? That you are average now? That you’re just another one of them? You have a family now, and my son is going to do the thing I raised him to do. Playtime is over.

 

You are three blocks from the parking lot where your car waits for you when the old dude goes, “You ain’t got a father, do you?”

You tell him that you had a father. That he is dead now, but before you’ve ever finished your sentence, he is saying that a boy needs a man in his life, needs a mentor and a father figure or he’ll never amount to anything.

You tell him that your mother raised you right, that your coach takes care of you, too, though this isn’t exactly true. Your coach cares about you only inasmuch as you can score him a better coaching gig. The dream — his dream — is to jump to college, and your name on his résumé could make that happen for him, if he’s willing to grind it out at a smaller school as a position coach for a few years. But who are you kidding? He’s willing. He’s ready to do this, to springboard his ass right out of this city and into a better place. That you happen to be the board from which he’ll be springing doesn’t bother you particularly. No, it doesn’t bother you. You find it … amusing? Yes. You find his inability to shape his own destiny to be amusing. A little sad, too, and so you let him squeeze your shoulder after games, when the cameras are rolling.

The old guy is rambling on about the necessity for a defining force in life, and you’re pretty sure he got this whole spiel from a self-help book, but yo don’t stop him, just let him prattle on. You do allow your mind to wander, to saunter down five miles or so south of here, to where Toni is probably in the bathroom, peeing again, which is pretty much all she’s done lately because pregnant women pee a fucking lot. Chalk that one up to Things Your Mother Didn’t Teach You.

 

Here is what Toni would say if she knew your mother didn’t approve of her: Fuck that bitch.

 

The old guy is still talking, so you pretend to hear your phone bing, pull it from your pocket, tell him you’re very sorry but you’ve got to take this, put your hand on the car door. Then he’s grabbing you by the elbow, telling you to sit here another minute, that he’s not done talking to you. “With all the money in that bag,” he says, “the least you can do is give me twenty minutes of your time to talk about the future.” His fingers dig into your elbow hard, dude’s got a grip on him, and of course he does, as he’s told you before, he was a receiver back in his day. He had the hands for it, unlike you. He tells you to sit your ass back in the seat, and his fingers dig in a little harder, and you don’t think much about it, you just swing hard, knock the fuck out of him, and there’s some blood, sure, but you think he probably got off light. Pull that grabby-grabby shit on some of the players on your team, and he’d have been in a coma, but you’re not one of them — no skin off your back if he wants to relive his glory days talking to a seventeen-year-old he’s bribing; you’re just annoyed that he decided to swing his big dick around after his mentorship speech. While he’s snorting bloody mucus across his button-up and sport coat, you say, “I ain’t got a problem with you wanting a conversation after you give me this money, but don’t spin me some bullshit about needing a daddy and then put hands on me.”

You don’t wait for an answer, just grab the sack of cash, clear out of the car, move across the lot. The guy won’t say anything, won’t call the police to press assault charges, won’t tattle on you to your coach or to the coaches at his school because it would just hurt his team if he did, and after all, it doesn’t matter what you do in a car in a parking lot. It matters what you do on a day in February. It matters which school’s piece of paper you decide to sign. And you will sign one of those pieces of paper. You have decided that this is a thing that is going to happen, and if by god some other asshole — Toni’s dad, Toni’s brothers, your coach with his morality pledge — wants to stop you, you’ll just knock the fuck out of him, too. If one thing has asserted itself to you tonight, it is that you are the one with the power. You knew this in an abstract way, but now, your knuckles bloodied, the knowledge has become concrete.

You get into your car, start the engine, think about what you’re going to say to Toni when you hand the bag over to her. There is a word you haven’t allowed yourself to think, a word that has been needling around the back of your mind from the moment she told you — in the middle of a rant about perfume, mind you — that she was pregnant. You haven’t said the word to her, and she hadn’t said the word to you, and you haven’t even let yourself look at the word in your own mind yet. When she made that confession, you felt yourself sliding into a backpedal, felt time extending for you just the way it always does when you’re shadowing your man, when you’re ready to make a play on the ball. You reached out to the man in the German sports car, used the card he slipped you when you were on an official visit to his school earlier in the year, and you arranged the meeting, and you made vague promises, and you took the money, and you punched the guy, and here you are in your car. It is time for the next move, time to drive to Toni’s house, to take her to the Mexican restaurant, where she will order enchiladas that will probably make her sick and where she will talk and talk and probably drive you a little wild with her talking until you interrupt her by handing her the bag and speaking the word you have not allowed yourself to speak. In one way or another, you’ll feel your whole sprawling future settling in front of you like a ticking clock as you say that one lonely word. But if there is one thing you’ve learned from the game, from men like the one you just hit, it is that even time can be manipulated, if only you choose your words precisely.

Christopher Lowe is the author of Those Like Us: Stories (SFASU Press) and You’re the Tower Essays (Yellow Flag Press). His writing has appeared widely in journals including Brevity, Third Coast, Bellevue Literary Review, Fiction Southeast, and War, Literature, and the Arts. He teaches at McNeese State University, where he is on the MFA faculty and coordinates the low-residency MA in creative writing program.

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