When he showed us around the apartment, Charlie mentioned that he chose this unit because of the spare bedroom, just in case his kids wanted to visit.
The bedroom was dark and empty, but there was a bed and clothes hamper in there.
He said, They're a little old for that, though.
Ransom said, For sleeping?
I said, How old are they?
Ransom walked back into the living room, ducking under the arrangement of balloons strung loosely from the light over the table to the cupboards.
My son's in junior high, Charlie told me. My daughter's getting ready to graduate.
Yeah, he said. He lifted his drink at me and shook it. Then he smiled. He said, And don't even think about it.
We walked back out onto his oversized balcony. There were flurries in the air, but we toughed it out, having drinks in his lawn chairs. We had a space heater set up between us. We could look off the balcony, over the rest of the apartments.
This should just about do it, Charlie said, adjusting the heater again.
There were televisions burning blue and white in other living rooms. I noticed some movement in the different stairwells. Across the street, a car was running, and a thick gray smoke puffed steadily from the tailpipe. Then it took off.
I took a long sip.
We all made our place around the space heater. Charlie rubbed his hands together, then put one back around his drink.
Ransom asked about the price of Charlie's place again, though that's what got us the tour just a few moments earlier. Charlie had never gotten around to discussing the price. He just started narrating. This time he gave the price.
Ransom gave a fake-sounding whistle.
Charlie is a narrator when he's on the basketball court, too. That's where I know him from. He runs in a Sunday morning pick-up game on a high school court near the university. The high school's janitor unlocks the doors and plays with us. The high school's vice-principal shows up sometimes. So do some college professors of history, psychology, and mathematics, respectively. There are some stragglers, here and there.
I show up with Ransom, who's a real ball of dangerous energy on the court. I think he likes basketball because he gets to take out some aggression he otherwise wouldn't. He's one of Charlie's poetry students at the university, and it seems like poets aren't allowed the hostility Ransom carries in his heart. I don't know Ransom as a poet, of course, but I guess that's what he's calling himself. I just know him as a buddy from high school. He was a senior and I was a junior about ten years ago. We've got stories.
Now he turns these stories into poems, I figure, poems with funny titles:
Bacon and Sex.
Cooking Spaghetti and Falling in Love.
Throwing Shoes and Making Phone Calls to Mariah.
I always read whatever Ransom throws my way, and they entertain me, especially when I'm in them, but I'm no poem writer.
I just turn my stories into ways to pass the time at the grocery store.
Apparently, Charlie is a big-shot poet, whatever that means, so I assume he's turned a bunch of history into poems, over the years. This night, he was giving a poem-reading at the university, and he had invited Ransom over for drinks. Ransom invited me. I laughed when Charlie opened the door.
He shook his head and muttered, This looks like trouble.
Now he turned Ransom's question about the price of the rent at this place into some report about him and the hot little Puerto Rican he's dating.
She just got back from Miami, he said. Her uncle was dying.
Ransom made the obvious joke about AIDS.
A serious look passed over the gray wrinkles on Charlie's face. Apparently, the uncle had passed on.
I hoped Charlie hadn't turned this one into a poem. I got the feeling the Puerto Rican would be at the reading, and I didn't like feeling uncomfortable when drinking or sitting. Or, both.
I was a little uncomfortable at this apartment, anyhow, until I reminded myself that Charlie's the guy I post up on Sundays morning. He's only the guy that makes weak foul calls, complains about his bad knees, puts all his game-time mistakes into fancy words.
I didn't attain the necessary momentum for that lay-up, he once said.
While Charlie was lecturing Ransom about something in a poem he'd recently completed, I laughed out loud and nearly spilled my drink. Charlie's last name is Glass, and I was thinking about the poem Ransom once wrote about Charlie's varied injuries at basketball.
They Call Me Mister Glass, it was called. I don't think Charlie got to see that one.
I think Ransom wants to be a big-time poet like Charlie, but I hope he's got enough sense not to end up divorced twice and ducking the balloons from his son's birthday every time he goes into his kitchen. But maybe that's what it takes. I'm no poem writer, like I said.
I can understand that attachment to greatness, though. After I graduated from high school, I attended college for almost two years, for the sole purpose of playing basketball. In the end, my body didn't hold out, and my grades got me suspended for my last semester. But while I was part of the game, I wanted to be a big-shot swing man just like the black guy who started in front of me. Vance Kennedy—I wanted to be that brother so bad I could taste it. Or, at least, talk it.
For my entire two year run, I talked the talk as well as any white boy could. I scored my points and yapped that trash. I helped beat down some punk-ass bouncer at a night club in Kansas City. I poured out a little liquor when 2pac died. And, early in my sophomore year, when Vance got arrested, he called me to bail him out. I was honored. After he got out, he needed to unwind a little, and we just drove around, Outkast CDs spinning in my player. Later that night, we unlocked the gym and played one-on-one until the windows showed it was morning. I won a few games, and Vance won a few more.
Eventually, I asked him if he really slugged his old lady.
That ain't the whole story, he told me.
Yeah, I said, not knowing what I was agreeing to.
Check ball, he said.
I faked a three, jabbed left, and crossed that All-American to the right. Nowadays, I can hardly get past Ransom's wobbly frame with all the fakes in the world. Sometimes I'll bump knees with Mister Glass and stumble into a travel, wondering how I fell out of line.
Don't ever write about how terrible my game's gotten, I tell Ransom.
Ransom's probably on the right path with his poems, though. Between his days in school and my days at work, we have some pretty crazy weekends. He's used the material wisely. He's always got his hands on some book about the rules of poetry. He even won a prize for a poem. Then we put it up our noses.
When Ransom went to the bathroom, a few moments passed quietly between me and Charlie. The space heater was getting downright hot, my legs warming all the way up to the chair. I looked back inside at the balloons. Yellow, then red, then pink, then orange, then yellow, then orange. There wasn't any pattern.
Charlie said, I guess a little shrub could warm us up, too.
Sure, I said.
Another moment passed in silence. I'd figured Charlie was offering, but now I was thinking different.
You got some, I asked.
Oh no, he told me. I can't risk it.
Just until August.
The flurries went crazy at the mention of summer. I buttoned the top notch on my coat.
I believe Charlie's subject to piss tests while he's on probation. He thought he was getting a good deal because the judge kept the DUI off his record, but now he thinks otherwise. He was riding with us to the reading because he has to blow into a plastic pipe just to start his car. Sometimes, as he mentions at basketball, he's late in the morning because mouthwash has too much alcohol content.
August will be here before you know it, I told him.
Yeah, he said. Then he said, Do you have any?
Dope, I asked. I shook my head.
Well, that's probably for the best, he said. You guys don't need any excuses to get stoned.
I can get some, I told him.
But you shouldn't risk it, I laughed.
Ransom slipped back out onto the balcony and said, Risk what?
Another knee injury, I said.
Charlie laughed at my wisecrack. Your bodies won't last forever, he told us. Then he threw back some more whiskey.
Speaking from experience, Ransom said.
Charlie started to reply, but he just groaned. He stumbled back inside, asking if our drinks are fine.
I could've gotten you one while I was up, Ransom told him.
I wasn't thirsty then, he said. I am thirsty now.
He tripped over the cord to the space heater, but kept his balance. Then he disappeared into the kitchen.
How many do you think he had before we got here, I asked Ransom.
Well, Ransom said, he's more bent than we are.
We weren't too straight ourselves. I'd lied to the old man about having dope.
He's drunk, Ransom told me, I know that much.
What about his reading, I asked. At this thing, he has to read poems and such?
Will he be able to read this way, I asked.
He was able to write them this way, Ransom said.
What are they about?
Ransom just looked at me.
Are they good?
Ransom shrugged. He said, They're about aging gracefully, as you can see.
Jesus, I said, my body suddenly going cold. Did he unplug that heater when he tripped?
The heater's orange was fading away, and as we both stared down at the bulbs, it went cold. We would've plugged it in, but that's when the crashing sound scared the shit out of us.
Over the past few months, I've noticed Ransom's one-time reverence for Charlie gradually melting away. Ransom's told me that Charlie doesn't even give him good advice on his poems anymore.
I tell him, Neither do I.
Ransom will shrug at this, and laugh cynically, telling me that at least I don't condescend to him about the material he draws on for his poems.
I don't even know what the hell that means, and I tell him so.
It means, he says, Mister Glass thinks immaturity isn't worth writing about.
Who knows, I tell him. I like reading it.
I write about losers, Ransom says, is what Mister Glass tells me.
You write about me, asshole.
Ransom says, Okay. Drugged-up losers in bars.
I shrug, and say, What can I say? And, what can I?
Then Ransom will make cracks about Charlie's Puerto Rican girlfriend. Charlie's bad relationship with his son. Charlie's ex-wives.
I'm sure there are cracks coming about those birthday balloons and that spare bedroom in Charlie's new apartment.
I'll chime in, because Charlie gets on my nerves sometimes, too, especially when he narrates during an entire pick-and-roll. I also chime in because I understand getting burned by too much faith in greatness.
No joking, Vance Kennedy ended up on "America's Most Wanted"—the actual list. And the television program. I found this out because during one of his many robberies, he'd given my name as an alias. The feds actually came knocking on my door about it. They already knew that I wasn't a large negro, but they wanted to know if I'd seen or heard anything of Vance.
Not since I was in college, I told them. About six or seven years, I guess.
Vance apparently turned to a life of crime around the same time he finished his senior year at my old school. He stuck up a number of convenience stores in the Kansas City area. His nickname was "The Polite Bandit" because he was apparently very congenial when sticking a place up. He also wore a golfing cap and a cardigan. At some point, he'd given my name, as well as the name of another guy from our team. But no others.
I was a little honored, of course.
But I felt a little betrayed, too. I realized he wasn't giving my name as any kind of tribute to me. He was just using it.
All told, I asked the feds if Vance was going to be on "America's Most Wanted."
They looked at me.
The television show, I asked them.
They gave me a card and told me to call a certain number if I heard from Vance. They didn't know about the show.
I tuned in anyway. Vance's episode was on about a month later. I have it on VHS, and Ransom even wrote a poem about my adventures with Vance. He made a few things up, but he said that's his poetic license.
He called it: All-Americans.
On the drive to the university, Charlie insisted he was okay. His words smelled otherwise.
I had a hold of one glass, he explained, and then they all came crashing down.
Why'd you need another glass, Ransom asked.
I was trying not to spill my drink, Charlie told us. He ended up with a big gash across his hand from all the busted stuff in his kitchen, bandaging it quickly. We were running late.
Did I grab my notebook, Charlie asked again. My poems. My god damn poems.
From the backseat, I handed Charlie his notebook.
Oh, thank god, he said. Is this the right one?
It's the one you told me to get, I said.
My poems, Charlie declared. He showed me a fistful of papers.
Super, Ransom said.
These are original drafts, he said, as if it was supposed to sound like a brag.
Ransom zipped through traffic, even though the flurries had realigned as giant snowflakes.
Look at those big old flakes, Charlie blurted. His breath was stronger than the three of us.
I think we're just going to let you out at the auditorium, Ransom told Charlie.
Charlie kept grinning until the words registered, and then he gave a look like he'd been punched in the stomach. It seemed to sober him upon impact.
You're leaving me, he asked.
Ransom looked over at him, and for a moment, he paid no attention to traffic. I stayed quiet in the backseat, even as we passed blindly through a yellow intersection.
Ransom said, No. He said, We're dropping you off, so you're not late, and then we're going to park, and then we're going to the reading.
Charlie nodded. Ransom sighed.
And then, Ransom finished, we can give you a ride back.
I don't know if Ransom had changed his mind, right on the spot, but I suspect that he really had been ready to ditch Charlie. What I don't understand is why he'd picked that moment to grow a little tired of Charlie's antics.
Hell, we'd done much worse before we'd stopped by his house that evening.
And during his reading, we stepped outside more than a few times to pass a bottle of something or another between us. I ended up jumping the fence near the auditorium, and pissing in the art department's fiery kiln.
Don't be a fool, Ransom scolded me. Then he punched the fence.
Charlie didn't seem too quick to comment on our antics, at that point. Maybe he was concerned that his girlfriend hadn't shown up. He just looked down at his notebook.
After we dropped him back off at his apartment, his lanky figure staggering lonesome through the darkness and to his empty apartment, we did much worse, one more time around. We drove over by my ex-girlfriend's, and I chucked a rock through her window for no reason whatsoever. Before I sent that thing sailing, I scribbled, Greetings, across the smooth, cold surface.
I heard the window shatter before I moved, and when I turned to run, I caught a glimpse of a giant shard, glimmering, falling slow as ice. Then it shattered again.
When we were safe, Ransom asked, Feel better?
I shook my head. I said, Do I ever?
I told him that now he had a sequel to that shoe throwing poem.
Maybe I'll run it by Mister Glass, he told me.
I smiled, and then I laughed and looked at Ransom, figuring he'd used that Mister Glass thing as a double-meaning, considering the mess I'd made with that rock. Poets do that sometimes, and most of the time Ransom does it, I don't even catch it.
Ransom didn't acknowledge it this time, though.
He said, What did you think of Charlie's poems?
By this point, we were back at Ransom's apartment, finishing off some cold pasta alfredo. It had been hours and hours since we'd watched Charlie read his work. I did remember laughing at the poster on the door—December 14th, Charlie Reads Poetry from his Recent Collection, Everything Will Be Okay When Everyone's Alright. Charlie had a moustache in the picture, and I figured that it was the worst moustache I'd ever seen. He was smiling like a goon.
What were some of them about, I asked Ransom. Remind me, I asked.
I don't remember them, Ransom admitted.
I can't remember a fucking thing.
Was there one about balloons, I asked.
Ransom smiled at me.
There was one about hunting and fishing with his granddad, Ransom told me. I think.
Ransom put up his hands.
Did Charlie have any pictures of those kids in his apartment, I asked Ransom suddenly.
Charlie's kids? Why doesn't Charlie have any pictures of Charlie's kids?
This was a strange moment to be saying such things, I knew.
I don't know, Ransom said. Then he told me, There was a picture on the fridge.
But that's it, Ransom said.
Did I remember that from his poem or from real-life?
Ransom thought on it. Well, he said, I think we heard it, but I think we saw it first.
Oh, I said. I said, I liked his poem about the picture of Charlie's kids, then.
Eventually we got out the phone book and made crank calls to a few people Ransom knows from the English Department. Then we called a few of my old friends. Then we put our coats back on and danced in the snow.
I don't think I threw anymore rocks that night.
At basketball, the Sunday before Christmas, Charlie is giving me and Ransom a hard time about getting thrown in jail. The rest of the guys joke a little, too.
I don't even know why those bastards at K-Mart called the cops, I explain.
Clay the math professor says, Other than the fact that you're assholes?
There's some more laughing, and even I have to laugh at that one. I'll make Clay's old bones pay for the comment during the games.
Who actually started up the lawnmower, the janitor asks us.
It wasn't really a lawnmower, I say. I just don't know what to call that shopping cart the cripples ride around in.
Lord, Clay says.
I wondered why there was a lawnmower up front at K-Mart, the janitor says. He's always full of questions.
Because I made it up, I tell him. Artistic license, I added, no one noticing my poet's language.
We couldn't really get it to move, Ransom laughs.
Well, the janitor says, who started the thing up?
Ransom and I point at each other. Charlie shakes his head.
Ransom tells him that he got some good poem material out of the whole deal.
And I have a good story to tell those guys in the meat department at Price Cutter, I laugh.
Well, Charlie tells Ransom, I don't know if acting like a jack-ass is the best thing to keep exploring in your poems. He chuckles about his comments, and Ransom seems to shrug it off.
I ask, How's that gash on your hand, Charlie?
His hand is bandaged heavily.
Ahh, well, you know, he says. It takes the pain away from my knees, at least.
The janitor says, You and your fucking knees. The janitor says this while he's taping up his elbow.
When we pick sides, I end up on the team opposite Charlie and Ransom. They've also got a straggler. Unfortunately, I end up with Clay the mathematician, the janitor, and some scrawny Asian guy. I figure he's math, too. I man up with Charlie. He pushes me around a bit, and I push him back.
The game starts like any cold engine, but I warm myself up quickly, with a couple of turn around jumpers.
Charlie explains the difficulty of guarding this shot in a pick-up game.
Shut the fuck up, I joke with him.
He laughs it off, too. Then he laughs again when he misses a pass from Ransom. It goes through his hands, off his chest, and out of bounds.
Little bit too high, he smiles to Ransom.
The next time he misses a pass, Charlie calls a foul on me.
Usually, I'd bitch about his call, but for some reason, I just look over at Ransom. He shakes his head. When I smile though, he tells Charlie, You've got an excuse for everything.
The guys laugh. So does Charlie. Ransom just seethes.
Later, when I steal the ball from Charlie off the dribble, and I hear Ransom curse. It's a big, booming curse that echoes throughout the chilly gym. I don't hear him chasing me down though. I go in for an uncontested lay-up, and Ransom comes out of nowhere, hurling his body into mine, going partly after a block, partly after my skull.
We end up in a pile under the basket. Ransom gets up quicker than I do. I've got a sharp pain in my lower leg. My adrenaline's still piping, but I've got nowhere to put it.
Whoa, somebody hollers from the other end.
What the hell, I ask Ransom.
He looks at me, then back down to the other end of the court. He puts his hands up like he doesn't know.
Charlie asks us if we're okay.
I don't know, Ransom says.
Charlie looks at me.
Yeah, I say, I think I might've tweaked my ankle.
You alright down there, Clay hollers to me.
The Asian guy looks a little frightened. I rub my ankle warm.
You guys need to settle down a little, Charlie tells us, but Ransom's already walking away.
I say, Yes. I say it on behalf of everyone.
When I limp off the court, Ransom tells the guys he'll sit, too. They turn the full court action into a game of three-on-three. Charlie directs traffic.
What the fuck was that, I ask Ransom again, over the squeaks and grunts at the other end of the court. Someone calls a foul.
I told you, he says. I don't know.
Ransom looks flustered.
I say, You pissed at me?
Of course not, he says. Of course not. Charlie just got under my skin, I guess.
And taking me out made you feel better, I ask. The pain's not going away, but I'm not as worked up anymore.
We've traded places with our dialogue, as we do sometimes, and it feels vaguely awkward.
I went down like Mister Glass, I tell Ransom, letting him know there's no hard feelings.
I say, Ha, so he knows I'm joking.
But he doesn't look at me. He doesn't look down at the action either. He stares across the court, right down the centerline, into the folded bleachers. Maybe he spots that mouse we've seen occasionally. Maybe some junk leftover from the high school game last Friday. But he closes his eyes, thinking deep. I know this look. He's elsewhere suddenly.
I wonder if he's thought of something he's going to write a poem about.
I wonder what story he's deciding against.