VENUS WORE RED BALL JETS
BY DON KENTON HENRY
“To say she was the epitome of feminine beauty is as wanting as was my ability to have her. It was as obvious as she was unattainable.”
No one ever called me “Tiger”, much less mistook me for one, and yet, the “Tig-Arena” was where I spent each weekday afternoon during the basketball season of 1969 through ’70. On Friday evenings, it was where I regaled in the hysteria of a state where high school basketball is the equivalent of “The Rapture” from November through the state championship each spring. And that arena was as ensconced in a hole in the middle of an Indiana cornfield, called Finn’s Landing, as I was in my duties as the team’s manager.
The Tig-Arena was less a basketball arena than a coliseum where high school heroes in satin shorts guarded the sacred paint of their home court. This they did for the entertainment and adulation of farmer’s in Funk’s Hybrid and Farmall hats; factory workers; families and students. Erected in the early 1900’s it was a venerable stadium in the manner only a mid-western high school gym can be. Its varnished hardwood glistened under caged lights suspended on gray steel girders, supporting the ceiling, high above the court. The topmost row of hardwood bench seats pushed into the curved girders, along the edge, a design which forced those seated there to lean forward through entire games. And if one could have leaned back, it would probably have been against the ancient hot water radiators that (in spite of their incessant knocking and pinging) kept it down-right toasty up there – regardless how many inches of snow happened to be falling outside. When it became too hot, someone would always open one of the long, wire-re-enforced, windows which tilted inward, on an axis in the middle, and the wind would blow the snow against the back of your neck. The rest of the time, the atmosphere up there was dark and heavy. It was laden with the scent of years of sweat; popcorn and endless coats of paint. And yet these were the preferred seats for many, as nowhere in the arena were the cheers of the fans more deafening or the vibration and sound of stomping feet more reverberating. Among the rafters they cloistered. There (down the rows and wrapping around the arena) was the altar of their adulation. And beyond the team’s benches; center court between the goals – lay the focal point of the entire gym: an icon of sacred proportions encircled in a sphere of black paint. No effigy or artifact of antiquity has evoked more reverence and pride than that image which represented our school.
Though nothing like it had roamed the fields of Central Indiana since The Ice Age, there lay a Golden Tiger laced in stripes. It is doubtful any Burmese or Bengali “freelance artisan” mistook Indiana for India or came through on his way to The Farmer’s Market and painted this opus. But no common representation by some high school art major was this! Embossed on hardwood, embedded in the court – like some ancient Asian mosaic – lay a glistening six-foot snarling length of sinew. Its head and face were elevated relative to its hind-quarters and curled tail and were turned ninety degrees over its left shoulder. Its lips were curled; teeth bared; its eyes afire with a demonic, reddish glow. The latter penetrated all who gazed on them. The coup de grace of this mascot masterpiece was, in my opinion, its up-raised right paw – outstretched and turned outward, level with its canine teeth. The long, curling talons of its paw were poised as though to snare the leg of any opposing player who passed or otherwise dared violate the sanctity of its lair … our home court.
Mine was an unlikely ascension to the role of manager of the Tigers. After being expelled from the high school choir for committing what the director, Mr. Boble, called “non-melodious murder in the first degree” of my rendition of Peter, Paul and Mary’s, “Blowing In The Wind”, I thought I would turn to the manlier world of athletics. Though some may conclude my fall from grace with the choir was due to the influence of a fifteen-year-olds hormones, the unfortunate truth was my body had escaped whatever impact puberty may have had on my voice. I suppose the vitals of five-foot-six and one-hundred-twenty-five pounds might have passed for that of a high school basketball guard, had I not been encumbered by size thirteen feet which anchored me at one end and a hyper-cephalic protuberance impersonating a pumpkin at the other.
Wrestling might have been another option were it not for my phobia of head-locks. Ever since Ron, “The Bull”, Bullock had gotten me in one, back in fifth grade recess, I’d had nightmares of my head exploding like an overly ripe Jack-O-Lantern while in the grip of some “Charles Atlas Come Lately”. And this was in a day before helmets worn by those with over-sized heads became fashionable – even in special ed class. Besides, a helmet certainly would not have looked sporting in lieu of the ear protectors which were standard attire for grapplers on the mat.
Thus, I took my mother’s advice when she reminded me “they also serve who stand and serve” and became the manager for the Finn’s Landing High School basketball team. My mother was well read and, therefore, I believe the “poetic license” she took was to prepare me for the athletic promise life appeared to hold for me. Because my efforts to dribble a basketball between two folding chairs called to question man’s evolution to that of a bonafide and worthy bipedal – I also took her to mean I could serve my school by doing the laundry; cleaning the showers and locker room; fetching the coach’s coffee; getting snapped on the ass with wet towels and otherwise being tormented by its basketball players. I came to consider it a privilege. Because, of course, there was Helen. For while my fellow Hoosiers were entranced by the trappings described – and the heroics of their hometown hoopsters – so much more was I by Helen Farina.
Now some may think Helen was not her real name. That such is too contrived … Too coincidental. My friends, such is life that irony is sometimes inescapable. And so it was that one named for a personage – for whom even gods would go to war – should be one. Such a Goddess was Helen. Of course, it would have been even more appropriate if her name had been “Venus” – the definitive Goddess of Love and Beauty. But this is non-fiction and such was simply not the case. Regardless, the point is moot as they were essentially one in the same. Besides, Helen suited her so well. And it would come to suit her more.
To say she was the epitome of feminine beauty is as wanting as was my ability to have her. It was as obvious as she was unattainable. Ordinary gods of yore would have gladly forsaken their status as such – the price of admission – to catch a glimpse of her at courtside. Her image broke par with all their heavenly experience. … But I had the privilege to see her every Friday night, and most weekday afternoons, for the price of sorting jock straps from jerseys and catering to pimple-faced, pubescent players in the throes of real – though regional – grandeur.” Mom had been correct when she said, “the rewards of earthly service can be divine”.
I first noticed the fairness of her form while the team was in the midst of running an “Eleven Man Drill”. Though she had been a ubiquitous figure at athletic events I attended, and around the school in general, I only first saw her for what she was – that very day. Like a beautiful tree or painting … you walk by a thousand times. Even though you are aware of its presence – and such is pleasing enough – it’s not until, at some level, perhaps subliminal, it speaks to you – at last you become truly cognizant of the depth of its elegance and substance. It was that kind of moment.
The coaches were occupied with the numerous players and their involved roles. I was seated on a bench two rows up from the court, behind the home bench, re-rolling ace bandages. I looked diagonally across the court to an open space in front of one of the four entrances at each corner of the court. The varsity cheerleaders were practicing there and, atop a pedestal of hands extended by three cheerleaders – was Helen – posed in a perfect “Arabesque”. Leaning forward, as though an angel in flight on a path directly for me; left leg trailing; left arm extended, fingers beckoning me come hither. Her eyes locked with mine for what seemed forever. Then, even from across a quarter of the court, I saw a small but unmistakable smile cross her face. At that point I became conscious of my mouth agape and my face flushed warm as I quickly turned it toward the floor. By the time I managed the nerve to look up once more – she was already on the floor involved in lifting someone else.
“Henry! … Hey, Henry!! Snap out of it, guy! What’s wrong with you? You in some kind of trance?”
It was the team’s other manager, Parker Fishback. “Is that Helen Farina you are checking out, man?”
“Who … what? What are you talking about?” I said, shaking the fog out of my head. Embarrassed, I reached for another ace bandage and attempted to avoid eye contact with “The Fish”. In fact, I wished to avoid the entire conversation.
“Yeah, yeah, man! – that was Helen you were checking out!”
“I don’t know who you’re talking about Fish. Helen? Helen who?”
He laughed an incredulous laugh and said, “You mean you don’t know her? Well, I guess I wouldn’t expect a nerd like you, or even me, to know her. I mean – actually know her. But you gotta know of her!”
“Well, sure – I’ve seen her before. She’s a senior, right! Varsity cheerleader, right! I mean, anyone who’s been to a varsity game has seen her on the sidelines. Right! I’ve just never seen her in quite that light before.”
“Quite that light?” said Fish, looking toward the ceiling. “What light are you talking about? It’s the same light we see everything with in here, man! What have you been smokin’!”
“She looked at me, Fish. She looked me right in the eye and smiled!”
“Now I know you’re dreamin’ – or delusional! There is no way you were getting’ play from her, man! That’s Tom Barrett’s girlfriend! Helen Farina is Tom Barrett’s girlfriend!”
“Tom Barrett?” Now there was a name which needed no introduction. He was in all likelihood the tallest high school basketball player in the State of Indiana that season. At six-foot-eleven-and-a-half-inches Tom Barrett towered over the rest of the team and the competition. As the center for The Tigers, his skills were marginal at best. His feet, though more proportional to his frame than mine, were almost as bound by gravity. The guy could not jump to save his life. And he had all the assertiveness of a neutered cockapoo. Just the same, at six-foot-eleven-and-a-half-inches you could only do so much wrong, and his mere presence in the paint would catapult us to the top of the Central Indiana Conference that season and our first state ranking in the memory of any of the town’s residents.
I could be forgiven for being oblivious to Barrett’s relationship with Helen, for two reasons. First, as a sophomore, this was the first year I had shared the same school with them. As a freshman, I had been housed a couple of miles away in a separate school along with the seventh and eighth graders. Secondly, the last couple months marked the beginning of my first real interest in girls. Prior to this, they were of mild interest only; the object of pranks and general disregard, if not disdain. Now, suddenly I felt the age-old “Calling of the Wild”. The calling of the “Carnal” to be exact.
Fish continued, “Man, if I thought you had half a chance with that girl, I’d warn you to look out, ’cause Barrett would stuff you like a potato if he knew you had a thing for his girl. But you’re safe! … Because if anything is for certain – it’s that Helen wouldn’t give you the time of day!”
“I was only looking, Fish. That’s all I was doing! … Just looking!”
“Dream on, Henry! … Dream on!”
Practice had ended and Fish gathered the loose balls and placed them in the racks while I got together the rest of the equipment and headed into the locker room in the basement of the arena.
“Hey, kid!” someone called as I passed the showers. I turned only to have my face and head enveloped in a wet towel. The towel appeared to hit where it was aimed. “Put that in the cart”, I heard the same voice say, over the laughter of players, as I unwrapped and removed the turban which blocked my vision. It was Barrett. Big Tom Barrett! Had he known I was worshiping his girlfriend during practice? No. No he could not have. It was merely a coincidence. Though disconcertingly strange it seemed.
Fish and I finished cleaning up and were the last ones in the building. Or so we thought. That was until we heard the squeaking of a cart and saw the residential janitor, Clem, passing through the hallway past the door of the locker room. Clem had the countenance of a Tibetan monk, coupled to an appearance like that of Dennis Hopper’s disheveled character, at his lowest point, in “Hoosiers” (another story about the only thing Indiana is known for). He had an ever-present wad of Beechnut tobacco in his cheek. It was so large, it may have impeded his ability to speak, for Clem was not anything if not disinclined to conversation. He paused and looked in at us.
“Hey, Clem,” I said. “What does “Clem” stand for? You know – Clemson … Clements?”
His face took on a pained expression and he made a “hurrmmphh!” sound at some guttural level, two octaves below bass. “Clem. Just Clem,” he said. Then he turned, pushed his cart and disappeared down the hall.
“Hell, Henry! You’re special! That’s three more words he ever said to a student! This is your night, man!”
I shrugged, “Yeah, Fish … I’m on a roll!”
And the season was on a roll. The Tigers blew through our first three opponents. They were teams named after once great Indian tribes or warriors but, of course, these were just other farm kids. White and slow, for the most part, but gritty and determined. They all knew the fundamentals – after all, they were Hoosiers – and the team that usually won was the team that played the best “team ball”. The Tigers could be the exception. Why? Because we had a “not-so-secret” weapon. We had a six-foot-eleven-and-a-half-inch center that occupied a lot of space! We had “Big Tom Barrett”! It took air-traffic controllers just to get around him! During home games, even the opposing stands were packed with out-of-towners who came just to see a kid stuff a basket while barely leaving the floor! His fame and notoriety grew and soon scouts from all over the mid-west began appearing at games and an occasional practice. Indiana University, Purdue and even Notre Dame scouted him before the season was over.
In the meantime, my duties kept me pretty busy during practices. What little time I did have to focus my attention elsewhere was spent focusing on Helen who, along with the other members of the cheerleading squad, continued her practices in the corner vestibule of the court. To my dismay, my glances did not go unreciprocated. In fact, the length and intensity of such seemed to increase with each passing day.
Then, late one afternoon, after practice had ended and the team had vacated the court for the locker room, I remained seated on the home bench calculating statistics for Coach Perry from the numbers recorded on a clip-board he left with me. I was lost in long-division until my concentration was broken by the commotion directly in front of me. When the basketball team would leave the court, it was the habit of the cheerleaders to occupy it for the remainder of their practice. On this particular occasion, they were occupying the floor space just ten feet in front of me.
I tried to act as though I were unaware of their presence and engrossed in the task before me. It was a losing battle. Each time I was about to consummate a computation, it would be punctuated by some earsplitting cheer and I would look up to see Helen executing a “Bow and Arrow”, “Cupie” or “Full Extension”. She was never on the ground for long. Whenever I looked up – she was in the air. (Like I said – the girl was like the angels.)
She had just dismounted from a “Liberty” pose and they all had launched into “Two bits, four bits …” (you know the rest). In the midst of this, I saw her bend down to tie a lace in her shoe. With that, I entirely forgot my numbers and became fixated on every move she made. She pulled up hard on the lace, to make it tight, and a distinct “pop!” echoed off the gym wall. I heard her exclaim, “Oh darn, I broke a shoe-string! And I don’t have another with me!”
At that point, my team manager instincts took over! This was the kind of moment a manager lives for! I reached into my supply bag, which was ever close at hand, and produced a shining white shoelace, still wrapped in plastic. I practically ran onto the court, in the direction of Helen, holding the shoe lace aloft, high in the air and proclaimed, “Here! Here! You can have this one!”
Not the least intimidation did I feel; no reservation did I have, for this was my job. Helen was in my world now. I kneeled in front of her and quickly and efficiently began removing the damaged lace from her shoe. Deftly, I threaded the new one in and began winding it up the shoe, pulling it snugly – not too tightly; making certain the tongue stayed smooth and flat beneath. After tying the bow, I slipped my hand behind her ankle; gently lifted her foot off the floor and manipulated the heel to make certain the fit was proper. As I did so, I moved my head forward to get a peak at the back heel of her shoe. “Are these Red Ball Jets?” I asked.
“Why, yes. Yes, they are. Are you a shoe salesman or something?”
That was the first time, since I had gone into my “equipment failure drill”, that I looked up into her face. She was looking down at me, her expression one of befuddled amusement, and took her long, blond hair and moved it behind and over one shoulder.
“No … No … I’m the team manager. The basketball team, that is.” I explained, while rising to my feet.
“I knew that,” she smiled. “Well … I certainly am lucky you were on the spot! Thank you so much! It feels just like new – the shoe! My Red Ball Jet!”
Now that the mission was accomplished, my nerves began to unravel and my alter-ego took leave. I was transforming, once again, to the socially challenged sophomore geek I was. The other cheerleaders watched; transfixed; their faces intimating incredulity – stupefied! I turned on my heel, made for the bench, grabbed the clip-board and beat a hasty retreat to the locker room.
“Thank you! Thank you team manager!” I heard her yell as the gym doors swung closed behind me.
The next couple of practices were uneventful. Except for the occasional glance in Helen’s direction, which was rewarded with her, smile. Three practices later, she returned my look not only with a smile but – I am almost certain – a wink. I am most convinced it was an actual wink of her eye. Then again, it could have been the result of some dust or other irritant. But people usually do not smile when they have a foreign object in their eye. That was what my team manager-cum-detective mind concluded. It was definitely a wink!
With that, I resolved, as well, to remain after practice. I knew you could never roll enough ace bandages. Even if you had to un-roll a few to begin with. And this is what I was involved in when the cheerleaders, again, took the court in front of me. Though I made certain to have plenty of new shoelaces on hand, no emergencies arose, and it appeared I would make it through their practice without any pretense for conversation with Helen.
Thoughts of her were now occupying my every waking hour and many of my non-waking ones. Unbeknownst to her, she was single-handedly fueling my sexual maturation. She had sent my hormones coursing on a super-highway to a destination unknown to all but nature itself.
They finished their practice, which was good – as I had no more bandages to role. I was pretending to look for something in my supply bag, when I heard, “Is that your book, Mr. Team Manager?”
I looked up to see Helen standing before me. She was a picture of “youth in all its splendor”. As the other cheerleaders were exiting the gym doors I heard the voice ask again, “Is that your book?” It was Helen. I looked in the direction of my textbooks, which I had stacked next to my supply bag. This was before students carried back packs. “Those are my books. Which one are you referring to?”
“The paperback. Doctor Zhivago.”
“Yes. It’s mine.”
“Are you reading it for literature class?”
“No. I’m reading it because I saw the movie when I was eleven years old and I want to see if the book is just as good.”
“You saw that movie at age eleven?”
“Yes. I went to see it at The Roxy. None of my friends were interested, so I went by myself.”
“And you appreciated it?” she asked, a look of skepticism on her face.
“Of course. It’s a classic you know. The book is a classic and the movie won, I think – what was it? – Five academy awards?”
Her smile was now very much in evidence, “Yes, five. I can see by your bookmark that you are almost finished with the novel. So is it?”
“Is it what?”
“Is it as good as the movie?”
“Well there is nothing quite like looking at Julie Christie for three and a half hours is there!”
She jerked her head back ever so slightly, “My, aren’t you the precocious one!”
With that I blushed and reached for my books and supply bag.
“I didn’t mean to embarrass you,” she said apologetically. “I think it’s wonderful you appreciate such things. And here you are in this testosterone-filled environment!” Little did she know my serum levels were off the chart.
“Well, it’s generally accepted cheerleading isn’t exactly the most cerebral pursuit and, besides, one can be masculine and appreciate the arts,” I responded.
“Ouch! The first thing you said is true. I was drawn into cheerleading because I appreciate the movements and athletics involved. I would prefer ballet, but it is not an option in this small town. As to the second … I had always hoped that could be true … that someday I might find a man who appreciates the aesthetics of all things.” It was her turn to look down and she did so; not speaking for a moment. I wanted to ask if there were something about Tom Barrett I was failing to appreciate, but thought the better of it.
She looked up into my face again, “So what do you think is the greatest lesson to be learned from Doctor Zhivago?”
“Do you mean the character or the novel?”
“They are one in the same are they not?”
“Yes … yes, they are. I would say Pasternak was trying to convey the timeliness of love … or lack thereof. The fact the success of love depends so much on timing. Even that which seems so meant to be, can sometimes not – all because the timing is not right. It’s just off. And because of intervening events, two lovers – seemingly meant for each other – can be star-crossed and die unfulfilled. Do you agree?”
“I so agree. I think your assessment is correct. And such a thing is tragic, isn’t it?”
Staring so deeply into her eyes, drawn into their whirlpool of blue … I thought never to surface … “What? What was that you said?”
“Unfulfilled love. That’s what we were talking about.”
“Oh, yes. Yes, it’s tragic. Of course it’s tragic.”
“What other interests do you have? What do you do when you are not managing our team? Are you an athlete yourself?”
“No. No, I’m not too good at sports. I really don’t have the physique for many.”
“And how do you feel about that?”
I shifted my gaze – off across the court. “I’d like to shoot the winning basket at the buzzer … just once. That’s all.”
“Oh, but you will. You will! Maybe not that, exactly – but the equivalent. You’ll see! How old are you – fifteen, sixteen?”
“Fifteen! Oh yes – yes! Eventually, you will be able to do whatever you like – physically speaking that is.”
“What makes you so sure of that?” I asked wistfully.
“Your hands – why look at the size of your hands!” she smiled. “Someday you will most certainly grow into those! My grandmother assured me that’s a real indicator!”
I felt a warm feeling creeping up my face again.
“Someday we’ll go off to do great things in life, both of us. You’ll see. What is your name, anyway,” she asked, extending her hand to me.
“Henry? Is that your first or last name?”
“Last … But that’s what everyone calls me.”
“And what is your first?”
“Preston? A fine name like that, and everyone calls you, Henry! Well, I shall call you, Preston” she proclaimed, shaking my hand ever so firmly.
She held her grip and only released it when I began to pull back. “And I shall call you, Helen. Helen Farina!”
“You know my name!” she exclaimed, so sincerely.
“Everyone knows your name. You’re Tom Barrett’s girlfriend.”
“Oh. And that’s how you know my name! That’s what I’m known for – being Tom Barrett’s girlfriend?”
“I came to know your name before I knew you were Tom’s girlfriend. Not long before – but before. So what would you like to be known for?”
“Well, someday, I would like to return to Russia, my native country, study Russian Literature at the University of Moscow and – of course – continue with ballet, which I studied before coming here. I want to be known as someone who followed her dreams.”
“Are you – could you be – the lost Anastasia Romanov!” I said, with a straight face.
“No, silly! You don’t know your history as well as I thought! I’m far too young – that was my grandmother!”
With that, I laughed for the first time that evening and Helen laughed with me. Each one’s eyes never left the other’s.
“So, Preston, what do you do when you’re not managing our team? – you never answered.”
“I’m on the speech team – when there is not a conflict with a game – then it’s full-time, once basketball is over.”
“Speech team! You give speeches?”
“I rotate between debate, humorous interpretation and poetry. Most meets, I can squeeze in two out of three. I’m ok at debate, and I usually win humorous interpretation – but poetry is my passion.”
“Ah … so you are a regular Doctor Zhivago, yourself, are you not? Do you write poetry as well?”
“Well … on occasion.”
She could hardly contain her excitement, “May I read something you’ve written? Will you write something for me!”
“I … I don’t know. No one has ever read anything I’ve written.”
“Then I shall be the first! I will be your muse! Every writer needs one!”
Books and supply bag in hand, I rose to my feet. “I have to go now”, I said. The building was quiet. Everyone else, with the exception of Clem, must have left. “Would you like me to walk you out?” I asked. It was almost Christmas and, as such, it was already dark outside.
“I’d like that. It gets spooky in here at night.”
“We walked across the gym floor; out the doors into the hallway and exited the building into the cold winter air. Neither of us spoke. I looked up into a street lamp and could see snowflakes beginning to fall. The lamp illuminated them and exaggerated their size. This could be Moscow, I thought.
The “Tiger Beat” rolled on straight through the Holiday Tourney. Two-thirds through the season, and we had lost only one game. That was a close game to a team that had a lot more depth and overall athleticism. Still we remained atop our conference and had high expectations as the playoffs approached.
Staying after practice became a routine for me. It was easy to stay busy in the locker room until Helen had finished her practice. By then, Big Tom would be long gone – home to feed his hulking frame – and Helen and I could talk about Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov and the Russian classics, in general. We talked about what St. Petersburg must be like in the spring.
She confided with me the real basis of her relationship with Tom – that it began when she was new to the school, two years ago, after her family had moved here from the northeast where they had immigrated when her father, formerly with the Russian military, defected from the Soviet Union during the “Cold War”. She admitted to being young and impressionable and, when she was assigned to tutor him in English Composition, their friendship developed. She insisted Tom was a good-hearted person. “He may be simple and one-dimensional, but he is honest and … he adores me.”
I did not question, or doubt, what she said. Even the last part. She went on to explain that soon the school year would be over. They would graduate and go their separate ways. Tom was probably going to accept a full scholarship to some university and, even if she were not accepted immediately to the university, she would move to Moscow, live with relatives, and prepare for the day she was. No “pipe-dream” was this. Through our conversations, I learned Helen was a “merit scholar” and fluent in both German and Russian. That she would accomplish her dreams was as inevitable as, “snow in the Urals by September,” she said.
“Thomas Swain,” I proffered, “would describe that as, ‘A pre-destined event so inescapable that neither time; the will of others or the laws of nature can prevent its happening. A thing, so meant to be, all else in the Universe shall realign itself to ensure its occurrence.’ ”
“Wow. I like that! Who is Thomas Swain? I’ve never heard of him.”
“You wouldn’t have. That’s my pen name,” I said, shyly.
“A nom de plume! Why, Preston! … Thomas Swain? Hmmmm? … How on earth did you come up with that?”
Here came that blushing thing again, “Well, Swain … uh … well – it just sounded catchy.”
“And what is Preston’s destiny? Does Mr. Swain have an opinion on that?
“Well, I won’t be a sports star, that’s for certain. Above all else, I’d like to be a writer.”
She raised her eyebrows, and leaning her face toward mine, asked “And of what would you write, Preston?”
“Well after Pasternak, I have to admit to being fond of love stories.” I could not believe I was admitting this and, once again, I felt the warm flush of my face. I turned it away in hopes of hiding it in the shadows cast from the lights of the arena. Too late, she had seen and started to reply. Then simply smiled and slowly pulled herself straight. I gathered my books and walked away. When I looked back, she remained in place watching me depart. That wry smile was still upon her face.
With spring, The Tigers ended our season with an 18 and 2 record, including our first defeat of Kokomo in years and producing the best season ever for Finn’s Landing High including retaining the coveted Conference “Silver Horseshoe”. Next were the tournament playoffs. We coasted through our sectional and put the “farm competition” behind us. Now we were into the Regional Tournament and, by virtue of our number one conference ranking, would be hosting the competition in The Tig-Arena. We were in with the “Big Boys” now – teams from Fort Wayne and Marion.
A raucous crowd of Tiger-backers, apparently high on popcorn fumes, went berserk watching our team dispatch of Fort Wayne, Friday evening, the first day of the Regional. The future was full of promise for our game against the winner of the next morning’s game. That would be Marion – winning in easy fashion. Those boys could “run and gun” and they came to play. Anticipation saturated the psyche of player and fan alike.
The Tigers were never really in the game. Scrap as we did, a powerful forward – and more than adequate center – for Marion collapsed on Big Tom every time he got the ball inside the paint. He’d have to kick it out or end up getting fouled forcing it to the hoop. Unfortunately, Barrett’s play was as one-dimensional as he. The big man was 2 of 12 from the stripe.
The only player putting the ball in for The Tigers was a short, little sophomore stud named Reidy, a.k.a., “The Bone”, who was drilling the basket – as he did everything with a hole – from the top of the key. “Give it to, The Bone!” came the chant from his personal cheer block. But his hot, 9 of 11, hand was not enough, and the season ended for the Tigers and our backers.
That evening, a sedate and deflated home crowd sat through the final game, ultimately won by Marion. I tried not to look down and over at Helen, who was seated with Barrett and the rest of our team. Eventually, I headed up under the rafters and distracted myself with a pen and tournament brochure. When the last confetti settled on the gym floor, I was still there, hunkered down in a corner niche between a side girder and a warm radiator. The last of the crowd had shuffled out and the gym was quiet. I thought Clem would be in any minute to start the clean-up process, but the lights dimmed and I never saw him. I guessed his plan was to come back with his crew the next day.
I lost track of time – thinking about the season we’d just had; thinking of Helen and writing on the backside of my brochure. Hours must have passed. The heat from the radiator and the events of the weekend were having their effect, and I was about to doze off, when I heard a gym door open, followed by the sound of footsteps down the sideline of the court. I assumed it was Clem and, tucked into that cubbyhole the way I was, I had to lean out around the girder to see who approached. As dim as the light was inside the Tig-Arena, her walk was unmistakable. It was Helen.
Apparently she had noticed my retreat and ultimate location for she came straight to the section and aisle where I was and started up, past each row, in my direction. She kept looking down and never made eye contact until she was standing directly in front of me.
“Have you imposed some form of solitary confinement on yourself, Preston? Are you taking our loss that hard?”
“Yes –this is my own version of Crime and Punishment.” I said most seriously.
She laughed, softly and briefly.
“I’m just reflecting on loss and living. The roles the gods may play in things … timeliness … you know.”
“Ah, that theme again. Seems we can’t escape it can we, Preston?”
I did not answer.
Helen took a seat on the bench below mine and, still wearing her coat, placed her hands on her lap. “What role do you think the gods play, Preston?”
“I believe they only assist. They assist the deserving, and then, only to push them toward their natural inclination. How do they influence you … or have they?”
She reached into the right pocket of her coat and pulled out something, keeping it concealed in her hand. This she extended and slowly opened … to reveal a note. A piece of white, lined, notebook paper folded into a square in the manner students had a habit of doing before the advent of “text messaging”.
“Tom gave this to me during dinner tonight at The Siding. I guess he didn’t have the nerve to speak the words. Here – read it.”
“No – no – I’d really rather not … It’s personal.”
“We are personal, Preston. That’s why I’m here.”
I took the paper, and slowly unfolded it. The words were simple but straight-forward. Tom had been offered a full scholarship to Purdue University in Lafayette. It was a “Big Ten” school and the offer represented a golden opportunity for any kid from Indiana. With his size, the experience he would gain at Purdue would give him a great shot at playing in the NBA. He would be signing a letter of intent before the weekend was over. Of course, they both had known this might well happen. They both knew that life was just beginning – not just for him – but both of them. He thought it would be easier if they just did what they needed to do, now, rather than wait until the last minute. He knew she would understand.
“I’m sorry, Helen. I am sorry for you,” I said. And I truly was.
“Oh, no. Don’t be, Preston. As Tom said, we both knew it would come to this. My god, if he hadn’t done it, then the burden would have fallen on me. And it’s so much better to deal with it now and not have the tremendous pressure of unfinished business. Tom will go on and have a great career in college and, by this summer, I will be in Moscow and, hopefully, immersed in Brodsky, Bulgakov and ballet. It’s you I’m worried about. Not because I should – or have reason to – but because I have come to care. You brought bohemia to basketball for me and saved me from seeing myself as someone who sold out to the superficial interests of the unimaginative and uninspired.”
“There is nothing to be ashamed about being a cheerleader, Helen. You brought great joy to a lot of people who watched you out there these last two years – not the least of which was me!”
“I know that. I know that … there’s just so much more to me …”
“And soon you’ll prove that to the world. Russia will have another Revolution!”
Again, I managed to get a smile from her.
“Back to you, Preston. What about you? When are you going to put yourself first? When will you ever write? I know there are so many beautiful thoughts inside your head. I have listened to them for hour upon hour this winter. I wanted to be your muse but – here it is – summer will be here soon. I have not read a single thing you have written and soon I will be gone. What kind of muse am I?”
“This kind,” I answered, and slowly produced the brochure I had slid into my jacket when she approached. Her hand trembled as she took it and began to read:
Ode to Helen
In every heart there lies a land, where promise lives … all souls are grand.
It is a place where love is true, and things you love grow old with you.
It’s not a place found quick in time.
It’s further down a labored line.
Ease is not the nature of your quest.
Yours is not to miss a test.
And I would follow; your path I’d trace
To be with you; to share this place.
And stand by you and be your grace … in times of trial,
Your heart displaced …
Would that I could make you smile when life has lost the softness from its face …
And put your heart back in its place.
Life is a puzzle; I’m not the piece.
That I accept.
There were no promises to keep.
And you’ll be fine for you are Helen:
Your soul is pure and know’s its place,
It’s bound for such; it knows the pace.
It goes where winter winds blow cold,
Where ice and snow freeze all but the soul …
And the heart.
For yours is warm, and ever will be –
From love and life and poetry.
And thoughts from here.
Helen for whom two mortals did contest,
They brought their armies, then did enlist –
The gods to help them in their quest.
Thousands died – they still persist – to hold her name above the rest.
Some think the gods have died and left no peer;
They’ve been belied – for none compare:
Not Juliet; Not Guinevere.
To you … an angel-goddess walking here.
And we just call you, Helen.
And Larissa Antipova, as a muse, left three hearts sad –
For timeliness in love could not be had …
By those with passion cursed by fate.
For them, life’s chance had closed its gate.
Two true loves found … one found too late.
Still all is well and always will be.
Life will be good and will not harm thee,
For I’ll be watching from afar with protecting thoughts and loving heart.
Permit me compel thy strength.
And when I write my greatest work,
It’s you they’ll find between every word.
Not myth or fiction need I create,
For I’ve been blessed a kindly fate –
To know what some men never know –
To go where most will never go.
Already I have traveled, oh, so far –
Beyond home’s door; Beyond home’s hearth …
To places in your tender heart.
They have names most will never know,
But they are places I will go …
Ever, Ever, Evermore …
And I will just call them … Helen.
(And it was signed) Thomas Swain
For the longest time, she just continued staring at the words scrawled on that high school basketball brochure. “It’s not Shakespeare,” I said.
Finally she looked up and replied, “Shakespeare never wrote for me.”
“Preston, do you know the meaning of the word “kismet”?”
“Fate,” I answered. “It is Turkish in origin … The word from which the wonderful word, “kiss” is derived.”
“I do so love a scholar,” she whispered, then leaned forward and upward pressing her lips against mine. And there they remained … a quiet, gentle kiss. Then she rose, placed the brochure in her coat pocket, removed her coat and set it aside. Gently, she took my hand and led me down the aisle to the gym floor. I did not know our destination and, as you can well believe, I did not care. I would have followed her across the River Styx.
I trailed behind, my hand still in hers, looking only at the back of those Red, Red Ball Jets. She led me purposefully and directly to that varnished icon in the center of the court. Once there, she turned to face me and, with her free hand, reached behind her head and pulled that golden mane behind her shoulder as I had watched her do so many times. The two of us stood directly over our Bengali mascot, feet straddling the beast, Helen’s back to its head and paw. With that, she took my second hand, pulled me close to her and kissed me.
I felt the fullness beneath her thick, black cheerleader’s sweater. I felt the tenderness of her lips; the warmth of her breath and the sweet taste of her mouth as she kissed me once more. It was the second kiss of my life.
I do not know at what point it ended. I do not know what transpired in between. Wars were being fought around the world – men were in space – babies were born – old people died – and the world kept spinning at 1,000 miles per hour. But I was locked in a moment on that mascot. Somewhere, deep, deep in my genetic material, herds of ancient wildebeest thundered across the Serengeti; the saber-tooth gave chase; wooly mammoths trumpeted – and some pre-historic relative of mine raised his club to the sky.
We lay there in the center of the court. She had come to rest perfectly in the paw of the Golden Tiger. It was as though he were holding her, contemplating the sumptuousness of this delicacy with which fate so kindly blessed him. Then … I heard a noise from a corner of the gym!
“Did you hear that!” I exclaimed. “There’s someone in here with us!” It sounded as though it came from the corner behind us. I looked there, but saw nothing in the dark shadows of the vestibule.
“It will be ok, Preston … It will be, ok,” said Helen, touching her fingers to my lips.
And with that, somehow, I knew it would.
I do not need to provide the details with which your imagination is already in the process of acquainting you. My friend, I know no fifteen-year-olds experience can take you where you have not been. I speak, of course, of your body and not your soul. Of the latter, I don’t pretend to know. Just the same, winged words could never do justice to the places I went that night or reality conveyed by any allegoric flight on which they might take you.
The next morning, Sunday morning, I could not sleep. I got up and walked to the high school which was only a block down and one street over from my home. As I had hoped, Clem, or some member of his crew had left a back door propped open with a door stop, probably so they could carry out the large quantity of trash which had accumulated during the tournament. To my surprise, the halls were silent. I walked by the gym, which was absent of anyone, and took a long look through the window at The Tiger on the floor. It was an icon that had taken on a whole new connotation. An icon that would become a motif. I made my way to the locker room and no one was there either. I wanted to clear my personal items from my locker. I was in the process of doing this, slowly making my way through miscellaneous things accumulated at the bottom; lost in thoughts triggered by such, intermingled with reflection on the night before. Then I heard a noise from the hallway. I looked up to see, Clem. He had stopped his cart in front of the door and was standing there, just staring at me, an impassive look on his face.
Then he said, “Hey, kid! … What’s Henry stand for?”
“Sir?” I asked quizzically. “Sir, I’m not sure what you mean? It doesn’t stand for anything. It’s just … Henry.”
“Oh,” he said. Then he leaned over and spit his tobacco into a can he carried on his cart. When he looked up, it was right at me, and he had the slightest hint of a grin on his face and a twinkle in his eye. “I thought maybe it stood for … ‘Johnson!‘” Then he gave me a wink with his eye. It was a distinct wink. Of that I am certain. And he gave his cart a push and was off and down the hall.
I often sit here alone in my chambers. It’s been over thirty years since I last saw Helen – or since anyone around here has seen her – for that matter. That was her graduation from Finn’s Landing High.
True to her word, Helen went to Moscow and enrolled in the university – this much I know. I used to get a post card from her every two or three years. These were mailed to my mother’s house, a block and a half from the old high school. They were always from a museum, historic or cultural center around the world – most often somewhere in Russia. They usually ended with some post script such as, “Preston – you should see St. Petersburg in the spring!”
The last one I received was from the Iberduero Aldeadavila Dam, in Spain – the one featured at the end of the film, Doctor Zhivago. I refer to the 1965 version, not that unforgivable remake filmed a couple of years ago. The post script to the one from the dam read, “Yuri’s brother tracked his niece to this place … Preston, will you never find me?” I put it in a cardboard box under my desk. My mother passed away six years ago, her house sold, and I haven’t received one since.
As for me? I received my degree in English literature from Indiana University and did what everyone with that degree should do – I went straight into the military. I had overcome my fear of head-locks and become quite physical. I channeled that into an eight-year stint with the Army Rangers, during which time I saw action in Grenada. Trying to put the technicalities of the Geneva Convention behind me, I got out and made my way to the west coast. There, I paid my way through the University of San Diego Law School by making … well – let’s just say – by participating in the underground film industry.
Thoroughly educated in all ways, I made my way to Los Angeles and landed a job as a Deputy Prosecutor for Orange County. A few years of that will burn anyone out – even someone with my colorful resume and connections.
So, you can see it was a long and circuitous route back here: Dateline: 27 November 2000; Finn’s Landing; Killarney County; State of Indiana, Circuit Court Judge. All the bridges I burned along the way were National Historic Landmarks.
I suppose we are all like trout – coming home to die in our old age. For all the fair faced maidens of abundant merit who indulged me along the way – I never married. Now, here I sit in this small town court reading briefs about stolen lawn mowers and trespass through flower gardens. I had to come down hard on a “cat killer” the other day.
Socially speaking, I do all right with the divorced women and widows around the county. I don’t attempt to rationalize what, to some, may seem the superficial nature of my relationships. I make no apologies for my appreciation of feminine form and company. And I don’t believe I ever left one without a twinkle in her eye or feeling she wasn’t special. It’s just that there aren’t any goddesses left … certainly no Helens or Laras – and definitely no one closer than Indianapolis named, “Venus”! But, if less than content, I stay busy. I’m something of a regular “freelance artisan” in The Farmer’s Market. But every once in awhile . . . every once in a night for days on end . . . I toss like a minnow trapped in the moss of a dream . . . of Helen and what might have been. And cold as the water of that minnow’s stream is the sweat in which I awaken.
Indianapolis is where I escape once or twice a month. I get together there with “The Fish” and “The Bone” down at Barrett’s Irish Pub. Yeah – that’s the one! Biggest friggin’ St. Patty’s Day, Leprechaun I’ve ever seen! “Big Tom” and I don’t talk about Helen. “Big Tom” doesn’t talk with anyone about Helen. I don’t think he got any post cards.
Don’t get me wrong about the way things have worked out. It’s been a great ride! I have no regrets. Well … not many. And I have this box of old essays, poems and other ramblings I’ve been putting to paper the last thirty years. No one else has read them. Hell, no one would believe them! I was saving them for someone.
So, here we are – another story too long to be “short”. Another story for the box. Time to get back to the case of the “stolen single wide”. But wait, there’s a knock at my door.
“Judge! Judge!” It’s the clerk of my court.
“Judge – there’s a lady here to see you. Won’t say what she wants, but … I think you ought to let her in … She’s a real looker, Judge!”