Sunday, May 31, 2009
In honor of basketball, a sport I love no matter how poorly my Knicks have done over the past several years, I've selected "The Jam" to be the first short story to appear on this blog as part of my Short Story Sunday series. Early birds will be able to find a new tale here at A Line A Day by early evening every Sunday for however long this endeavor runs. Others may opt to hold off so they'll have a new piece of fiction to get the work week started right on their Monday morning commutes. Whenver you choose to read these pieces and however (laptop, Kindle, Sony e-Reader, printed out, whatever) I hope they bring a touch of brightness to your day and I look forward to reading your comments. I won't bother to preface any of these stories with much of a synopsis beyond writing an introductory sentence and then letting them speak for themselves. Regarding "The Jam" I'll simply state that it's about a man trying to re-live his youth, if only for a brief moment. Happy Reading!
BY ROY L. PICKERING JR. Copyright held by Roy L. Pickering Jr.
The anxiously awaited train teasingly crawled forward a final few inches, then whip-lashed backwards. Before the doors even started to open, the crowd on the platform began jockeying for position. Floyd was initially in an ideal location to enter, once a few square feet were made available by departing passengers. But as the human torrent flowed out, he was bumped, stepped upon and spun around. In a matter of seconds the space was filled, and Floyd could do nothing but watch as the third train he had failed to get on that morning pulled away.
"You're not aggressive enough," his wife would constantly berate him. "Don't expect and don't request what you want. Demand it." Floyd knew that his wife had a valid point, but shoving his way to the center of attention just wasn't his style.
Ten minutes later the next train pulled into the station. This time Floyd was able to maneuver himself into what he thought was the final open spot. Unfortunately, the two hundred and fifty plus pound woman behind him felt that her girth could also be accommodated. Using Floyd as a human battering ram, she leaned every ounce of her flesh into him. After several failed attempts, the doors managed to close in on the woman's enormous behind. Floyd spent the eternity seeming next few minutes sandwiched between her flour sack breasts and the shoulder blade of a man who had apparently eaten a raw onion for breakfast.
Such torture could have been avoided by leaving home a little later than usual. Fifteen minutes would have sufficed, and the extra sleep would have been a welcomed treat. It wasn't as if it mattered what time he showed up. He was only going in to retrieve the few personal effects he had been unable to remove from his office yesterday. Yesterday was when Floyd joined the ranks of the unemployed, forced to resign after twenty two years of loyal service for the sin of aging in a youth oriented marketplace.
Floyd would not have minded expressions of pity from his colleagues, many of whom were not much older than his eldest grandchild. He had already begun to grow weary of feeling sorry for himself, so sympathy from other parties may have been kind of nice. But not a gaze caught his own as he passed. Everyone found another direction to look in with mild embarrassment. Floyd walked by his replacement, a kid only a few years out of college who possessed less knowledge of their business than one of Floyd's after dinner farts. But Tommy’s knowledge of the computer technology Floyd had shunned was thorough, as had been his earnestness to siege Floyd’s job from day one, and his willingness to kiss the appropriate ass in aid of this cause. Floyd expected a smug grin to be aimed his way, which would have been somewhat appreciated, for at least it would have been acknowledgment. But all he received for his years of dedication was the back of another gray-less, full head of hair. Floyd quickly gathered his belongings and departed, a despondent ghost haunting the corporate world which had done him in.
How had it ended up this way after starting off with such promise? College diploma in one hand, college sweetheart clasping the other, he had taken his first steps onto the rainbow with no doubt whatsoever that the pot of gold at the other end would soon be within grasp. The years since had been filled with highs and lows, times good and bad, and this was the moment they had led to. Instead of a pot of gold, he held a convenience store shopping bag filled mostly with mementos of minor accomplishments and photographs of loved ones, memories that when strung together constituted his life.
With no particular destination in mind, his steps took him to a fenced in concrete playground where sinewy urban youths played basketball with reckless abandon and breathtaking grace. More years ago than he cared to count, this game had been his central preoccupation. Floyd had been an above average high school player with dreams of the NBA which didn't come to an end until the senior year of a mediocre college career. He had relished every second of his final game, praying that the clock would never expire. Of course, his prayer went unanswered. Sooner or later, everything came to an end.
Floyd's remembrance of the sport seemed in slow motion compared to how it was being performed before him. The four against four full court contest was played with a bare minimum of teamwork, and perhaps even less desire for victory. Instead, it was a showcase for eight individual demonstrations of one on one moves, each more spectacular than its predecessor. The ball whirred through legs and around backs as if on a string, always coming back to its momentary possessor. Almost every sequence ended with a sudden propulsion of limbs above and beyond the rim.
During a break in play, Floyd's attention fell upon an African-American teenager to his right, who like himself was about six feet four inches tall. That was where their similarities ended. The kid was shirtless, lacking the paunch Floyd had acquired while time was passing him by. A low percentage of both body hair and fat caused the kid’s muscles to glisten in the sun. Beneath his button down shirt, Floyd’s considerably paler skin was not stretched nearly as tightly over his own frame. The girl that the kid flirted with looked up with longing into his dark, untroubled eyes, while Floyd observed them with envy through the light gray windows from which he wearily viewed the world. Floyd knew, for he had once been looked upon similarly, that the kid's confidence as much as his chiseled appearance was responsible for the attraction he elicited. His entire life lay ahead, he was in his prime, and like a peacock spreading its feathers, his demeanor exuded to all privileged to view him - check me out. If aware of the toll the process of living would eventually exact, taking away his beauty, his prospects, his cocky self assurance, the young man gave no indication of such foresight.
The basketball ricocheted off the rim, going out of bounds and heading in Floyd's direction. He went through the entrance of the court to retrieve it, fully intending to toss it back to its masters. But after scooping the ball from the ground, Floyd found himself dribbling down court. The pounding of his heart echoed the rubber on pavement. Looking ahead, he could see that the players had politely stepped aside to make way for their elder. A sense of deja vu overcame him. The final game of his college career, the closing seconds ticking away, Floyd then as now driving the lane hard, his path clear. At the foul line Floyd ceased his dribble and cradled the basketball. He brought it upward as he took a long left step, higher still with the following right, and then he was airborne, going for the jam.
"Hey, are you all right?"
Floyd opened his eyes and took in the worried, quizzical expressions above him. The memory of what had transpired seconds ago surfaced. The orange sphere hitting the unmovable rim, propelling him backwards. His vertical apparently wasn't what it used to be. Very little was.
Then he heard the clapping and cheering, some mocking, some sincere. The animated ebony sculpture he had been admiring gave him a thumbs up. This was the end of the rainbow, and what Floyd had found was an insufficient severance package, an unhappy marriage, some mild public humiliation, and a sore back. The words of his wife once again nagged at him. Had she been able to see him then and there, he wondered if she would be satisfied. He had aggressively gone to the hole, demanded that space be made for him, and reached for the heavens. He had fallen short of his lofty destination, come crashing back to earth, and it hurt. Once the pain subsided he would dust himself off and return to the business of living amongst mere mortals, holding firm to recollections of his brief view from the perspective of the gods.
Would his wife realize that the separation she had asked for two months ago was a mistake? Certainly not until he found a new job, preferably a better paying one. Would it matter if she never came back to him? Why should it, when it had mattered so little when she left?
The progression of events which led to the loss of his job had not sneaked up on Floyd. Sufficient advance warning had been issued about the evolving demands of his business. He chose to ignore the signs of danger. Things had been getting done the way he did them for many years. He did not subscribe to the theory that all processes and procedures needed to be periodically mended, even if they were not broken.
Long before the collapse of his marriage, Floyd knew precisely what could have salvaged it. He fully understood what type of man he would have to become, and had given considerable thought over the years to changing himself for the satisfaction of his wife. But Floyd had grown accustomed to who he was, and more importantly, he was rather fond of that person. So he continued to be the man he was meant to be, choosing not to be overly concerned about the possible consequences. Those consequences were now the state of his life. He spent the first ten minutes of each morning wondering when and if regret would be setting in.
Decades of effort had been given both to his marriage and his employer, with the same result in each case. He was told he was no longer wanted, long after ceasing to care.
"Can you hear me, guy? You okay?"
Floyd was okay, for he realized at that moment what the greatest of fools instinctively knew. No matter how high you get, sooner or later you will land. Perhaps on your feet, perhaps on your ass. If the former, you look around with pride and smile. If the latter, you do what Floyd did in response to the concerned question posed to him. He looked up at the world above him, laughed, and then sprung back up to his feet.