Though my father spread his arms for a hug, I extended my hand. We had agreed to meet under the buzzing sign for Smost's Breakfast N-E-TIME along Route 92 in Rockland, Iowa because Dad said it was the town's easiest-to-find landmark. He stared at the hand, shook once, and our arms dropped. An awkward second coasted by. "Weather couldn't be nicer," I said, tenting a USA Today over my head to shield me from the February rain.
"Let's go inside," he said. Under the diner's fluorescent lights, he looked more deflated and fragile than when he'd visited me three years ago in Jacksonville, Florida. We were supposed to spend a weekend together then and take in a Jaguars game, but he ended up sitting in my apartment both days because I had to put together a last-minute story for the Times-Union on this local Catholic school running back who wadded up his signed letter of intent to attend Florida and was going to Georgia. I apologized to Dad repeatedly, and though he nodded and told me he didn't mind, he had not been back since.
At the counter, we wedged between two truckers shoving forks full of pancakes into their mouths. A waitress worked the line of customers down to us, pouring coffee without asking if we wanted any.
"Thanks for coming," he said, blowing into his cup. "I really wanted you to see this kid. He's amazing."
"Runs like a gazelle?" I asked. This was his favorite cliché for swift basketball players, and I'd made a point to avoid it in my column.
He knew I was joshing him "Can't tell. Remember—he's on a donkey," he said, sipping and winking. I'd flown up to cover this weird pastime called donkey basketball, a goofy farm-burg stunt to raise money for high-school sports programs. Dad had been going to these games ever since retiring last year as head basketball coach of the Keokuk County Warriors. Since then, he'd been driving two or three hours to out-of-the-way gyms for these events. He'd also left my mom a tearful voicemail message the previous week, though they'd been divorced for ten years. I worried these activities might be early signs of senility. Not long after turning sixty-five, my dad's sister Trish had filled her house with tall, unsteady stacks of fast food containers, claiming they bore coded messages from God.
"That's right. A donkey," I said. "I forgot."
He looked at my hands curled around the mug. "Shouldn't you be taking notes?"
"I'll jot some tonight on the plane."
"You're not staying?"
"I have an editorial board meeting tomorrow," I said, layering a smaller lie on top of the whopper I'd told him about writing an article on this kooky sport. Last December, Dad had emailed me about this donkey basketball phenom named Craig Wietse attracting huge crowds; he wanted me to cover him in my column. I took a pass on the idea, and he told me it would be damn shame if I didn't cover it. He warned me that I'd regret missing out on a true piece of Americana.
Then my mother phoned. She'd lived in Largo, Florida, with my stepfather, Murray, for years, but apparently Dad still clung to some sentimental hope of reconciliation. He'd call her every six months to see how she was, but this time she said Dad had pled for her to leave Murray and come live with him again.
"Did you call him back?" I asked.
"I wanted to, but Murray said it would just make things harder." She paused. "Would you call him?"
"I don't know what to say to him, Mom. It's not like we're close anymore." I resented that I had to counsel my dad on his love life, thinking it should be the other way around.
"I worry about him," my mother said. "But I don't want to encourage this sort of thing." She sniffed. "Could you please find out if he's okay?"
So I called him, and when I asked, he made it sound like I'd accused him of stealing. He said: "I just wanted to see how she was."
"She told me you wanted her back."
He breathed loudly into the phone. "This is just a misunderstanding between Mom and me," he said. "We'll work it out."
"What's to work out?" I asked. "She's been remarried for nine years. She's not coming back." I instantly regretted being so blunt. "You need to move on. Don't sit around pining for her."
He remained silent for a few seconds. "Hey," he said. "I do plenty. I'm following donkey basketball. Playing in a game next month." I was about to apologize when he asked, "You sure you can't cover it for the paper?"
"We've been over this," I said. "No one here wants to read that."
"How do you know? I might get something going. Set a trend," he said. "You gotta see this kid play—he's incredible. They call him the Amish Rocket."
"I thought the Amish shunned technology."
"What's technological about a donkey?" he chuckled. Then, more seriously, he said, "You've never been up to see me. Not in ten years."
"Come on; it'll be great."
I rolled my eyes to my apartment ceiling. "If you stop pestering Mom to remarry you, I'll do it." Dad knew I could get the Times-Union to print an article if I wanted, but I didn't have any intention of writing anything. So I told him I'd pitch it to USA Today. When a piece on the Amish Rocket didn't materialize, I'd complain that they'd cut it for something else.
"USA Today?" he said. "Wow." I winced when I realized how much it impressed him.
"No more begging Mom to come back. All right?"
"It wasn't begging, Dan," he said. "I have every right to call her."
"I know," I said. "But no more proposals. Okay?"
He said "Okay," and I hung up to arrange a plane ticket.
My mother left him right after I turned seventeen, and her decision surprised me as much as Dad. She'd come out of a self-help course at the state college extension in New Albany talking about empowerment and "allowing her desires to breathe." She began lifting weights, buying only organic produce, and started a women's book club called "The 40-Plus Bitch Goddesses" (I was unsure if this referred to the number of club members or the median age). She claimed Dad needed to get in touch with his ambition. If he didn't, she warned, he'd never be capable of fully connecting with her.
Like shell-shocked veterans avoided reminiscing about combat, my father and I avoided talking about the separation. He never said whether he thought she was being selfish, being terrible, or being truthful. Even the day she moved out, he stood silently on our front lawn, staring into the distance, as if watching a sunrise. Movers in grimy overalls trucked past him with my mother's possessions, and he seemed as oblivious to them as to the cold muck streaked on his loafers. I stayed because, like Dad, I expected her to return. I also knew that she'd given him some hope, a way to patch them up, and I thought my dad could make it work.
Not winning enough basketball games, Mom claimed, made him unhappy even though he wouldn't admit it. She seized on his dearth of sports glory as evidence that he lacked ambition, telling him, "You need to be more assertive, Carl." My father was a competent, if largely unsuccessful, coach, a student of the game but not much of a competitor. He treasured balletic gestures and the clockwork smoothness of a well-practiced play, but his skills only allowed him to keep Tilson High School from being profoundly embarrassed each season. Mom suggested Dad try what she called "metaphysics," which emphasized the power of positive thinking and self-actualization, to remedy his apparent lack of drive. To win her back, he threw himself into researching these concepts. During lunch, I'd see him studying in the teachers' lounge, his face hidden behind the open cover of a book called Mind Mastery.
Mastering his mind wouldn't make Dad more assertive. I'd inherited his distaste for competition so I knew. I was a mediocre player at best, and though I had height, I possessed no toughness or quickness. I didn't have the competitive fire like Randy Otte or Jim Ladd, our power forwards, whom I relieved once or twice a season. I enjoyed practicing and playing, but I didn't care if I got any better. My mother hoped to motivate Dad, but I knew he was satisfied with his level of zeal. But he wanted her back, so he tried.
A few weeks after she left, our team was getting shelled by the Jasper Panthers, who were up twenty-six at the half. In the locker room, my dad didn't begin sketching plays on a chalkboard or pointing out weaknesses in our defense like usual. He quietly told the assistant coaches to leave then deposited himself on a stool.
"All right, guys," he said. "I want you to close your eyes for a minute." We stared at him and each other. He had always talked with his hands, always wanting to show and for the players to look. "Come on," he said. "Don't be afraid." My father shut his eyes.
Lids fell around the room, except for mine. Our team looked like a prayer circle. "I want you to see the court and see the ball in Jasper's possession," he said. Several of my teammates grunted in discomfort at this, and a few had their eyes scrunched shut, desperate to thwart the public caning. "Now imagine them dropping it!" he said in what sounded like awe, his arms raised as if to conduct a symphony. Like schlock movie zombies, Jason Stern and Mike Freely extended their arms to pluck the ball from thin air. My friends Larry Franke and Jim Ladd opened their eyes, their gazes oscillating from my dad to me. I shrugged.
"Now you, Jason, you get it. Bring it up the court. Dribbling confidently." Stern air-dribbled and wobbled his legs as if running, appearing to mime an epileptic fit. "Get set in the swinging-T. Jim, Jamie, and Mike, that means you." He gestured to the wrong players because his eyes were still shut. Mike rolled one panicked eye around to look at the others. Jason continued dribbling the phantom ball up the imaginary court. Jim and Mike looked at me helplessly. More players opened their eyes in confusion.
Dad, oblivious, continued, "Jason, pass it to Mike. Mike, cut inside and dish it off to . . . Jamie!" My dad sounded enraptured as he indicated Jamie Winkleman, a wide second-stringer who played center like the left tackle he more properly was. This boy, a true believer it seemed, had his eyes clamped shut, his face a rictus of concentration. "Jamie backs that big kid they got at center out of the key and passes back to . . . Jim . . . who's been scoping for opportunities in the back court . . . and he shoots." Dad grinned joyfully, his eyes still closed. "Swish!" Then he raised his arms like he'd won a title fight. "Three points! Yeah!" he shouted. Jim Ladd lifted his fists in uncertain triumph.
He imagined several more plays. We mounted an impenetrable defense; there were numerous turnovers by them and steals by us. In his mental game, Jasper never scored. When my father opened his eyes they looked glazed, and we rose—doubtfully—for the second half. "Just see it before you do it, boys," he said and reminded us that we'd already won the game mentally, so we should give ourselves a round of applause. There were a few half-hearted claps, and we fell silent when an assistant came in, followed by the roar of the crowd through the open door. Jamie Winkleman squeaked with fear.
Jasper flattened us by forty-four points. When the final buzzer declared an end to this disaster, my dad trotted down the sideline. He grinned professionally and congratulated Jasper's coach, acting like he took it all in stride, but sadness radiated from his droopy-lidded eyes.
I eventually came to see that my mother was not entirely correct about my dad, but then, as now, I could see why she stayed gone. It's not that my father lacked willingness to succeed; it's just that he lacked aptitude. He wanted to win that game; he wanted her back but did not possess the ability to make these things happen.
After the loss to Jasper, the other boys on the team asked me if my dad was going to coach every game that way. Then the assistant coaches and other teachers inquired about him. My guidance counselor called me to the office during study hall to see if my dad was on medication. I kept saying he was fine. All my friends judiciously avoided mentioning my father but watched me closely for similar signs of inherited psychosis.
Then the story of the mental exercise filtered out to the more conscientious basketball supporters—mostly parents of my teammates—who called the principal in an uproar. Officially, Dad was relieved of his coaching duties for failing to stress fundamentals. Anyone who followed high school ball in Indiana believed in stressing fundamentals the same way Marxists believe in revolution. Dribbling, passing, shooting. Just sound, biblical ball skills. And my father had departed from this sacred formula, so assistants filled in for the rest of our rotten season.
Dad now came home immediately after school to read his self-help books and cook dinner, which was a dicey affair since he couldn't cook. We had wildly unbalanced meals, like entrées of mashed potatoes and frozen vegetables, with a side of pasta. Everything that wasn't underdone was burned, and his chocolate cake tasted like a block of rubber cement.
A few days after he was canned, I asked over a plate of mushy lima beans and watery chicken dumplings if I should quit basketball out of solidarity. "I'm not getting any playing time," I said. "They know I suck."
"Playing time isn't everything, Dan," he muttered. "Or maybe it is. Hell, I don't know." Then he said he'd lost his appetite and left the table.
I broached the subject a few more times, but he was no help. "It's not up to me to define you, who you are," he said, quoting a book called Defeating the Anger/Self-Pity Juggernaut.
I quit, and my mom told me she understood then asked me to come live in her apartment. She said Dad was too confused to parent effectively right now. "I'm moving to Florida in June," she said. "You should move with me. You can do your senior year down there." I longed to put this whole fiasco behind me but didn't like breaking it to my dad. I told him as gently as I could—that I thought it would be easier for both of us, and he just nodded like he'd expected it all along.
I would've had to move anyway. At the end of the school year, my dad's teaching contract was not renewed for the following fall. He had to find work elsewhere, and a coaching friend suggested he apply to Keokuk County, a state and a half away from Tilson High School.
Outside Smost's, snow collected on my rental car, and I said, "I wonder if they'll cancel the game."
"No way, my boy," he said, grinning. "A little snow doesn't scare us Iowans." He gestured to his Oldsmobile. "Let's take mine."
"Since when are you a native?" I said, sliding into the passenger's seat. Though he released a barrage of winks and grins, his joviality seemed strained. I searched his face for hints of confusion or desperation. I could only see that he couldn't wait to get to the game.
"They make you an honorary one after five years," he said. As we cruised through town, my father indicated other important landmarks, and I noticed two liver spots on the back of his hand. This was a tour of his last ten years in Rockland, a part of his life I didn't know. I'd come to think of Dad as an errand I'd meant to run but never got around to. After I left with my mom, I never visited. Except for a couple of my graduations (from high school and from Florida State), his awkward visit three years ago was the only time I'd seen him since leaving.
"Donkey basketball," I said, and burped into my fist. "How much time are you spending on this?"
His festive demeanor evaporated. "What do you mean?" he said then pointed to a plowed field. "They're putting a Wal-Mart distribution center there in April."
"I mean," I said and exhaled, unsure how to proceed. "How many hours a week do you . . . you know, go around to this stuff."
"Is this for the story?" he asked, glancing at me. He knew I was thinking about his sister and her food boxes. "I try to go if it's less than a hundred fifty miles." He returned his gaze to the road.
"How far? You drive a hundred fifty miles?"
He turned his head again, but now his eyes seemed to fall on the landscape passing in the window behind me. "I assure you, Daniel, that I'm not squandering your inheritance on gasoline."
"That's not what I mean," I said, rolling my eyes.
"Did your mother want you to come up here?" He spit the words like they tasted awful. "Does she think I'm going to end up like Trish?"
"No, I came of my own volition. I wanted to see you."
He gazed out his window and then nodded at a street leading away from Route 92. "I lived down this road when I first moved here."
"You have to know that she's not coming back. You've got to accept it."
"I'm not hurting either of you by calling." He dusted the Oldsmobile's dashboard. "I just wanted to talk."
"You asked her to leave her husband, Dad."
He pounded the steering wheel. "I'm her husband!" His eyes were locked on the road.
"If you keep this up, she won't take your calls anymore."
He shook his head. "You two are just alike. I'm never enough; I can't do anything right."
"But I don't think that," I said. "Not at all." I remembered how, in high school, I'd concluded that he was hopelessly ineffectual, which he was. But I still regretted thinking it.
"I know that's why you went with her," he whispered. I remained silent the rest of the way to the school where he guided the Oldsmobile through a snow-blanketed lot full of pickup trucks. He pointed at the donkey wrangler—a lean man in a seed cap—leading a line of animals through double doors. They came from a trailer, which said: "Have donkeys; will travel" below the wrangler's name and phone number. The donkeys were soft-looking, gray, and sported the requisite long ears and moist brown eyes. Their ears flopped over comically as they trailed in, heads bobbing. I wished then that I had arranged to write a story for him or at least remembered a pen and notebook.
As he did with the town, Dad gave me a tour of the school, and I started acting journalistic, following up his every comment with another question. I breathed in the humid gym air and heard the hollow tromping of feet over the wooden stands. He proudly recited my credentials to a group of faculty members in the sea of high schoolers: "Here to cover us for USA Today!" Knots of queasy guilt tightened around my stomach.
He wanted me to meet his replacement and introduced his former assistant, Coach Martin, who shook my hand. All these coaches were interchangeable: gray hair, big shoulders, torsos layered in fat, large watches on their wrists, and raw red complexions. I watched in mute astonishment as Dad started stretching and doing wind sprints up and down the sidelines in his khaki stretch pants. A "Dream Team" of teachers, coaches, and local sportscasters was playing the Amish team. The donkey wrangler, over the P.A., instructed players not to kick, hit, or scream at the animals. As he stretched, my father recited, in unison with the wrangler, what was clearly an old joke: "You can abuse the other players but not the donkeys."
I sat in the front row, and the bleachers behind me started filling, thick-necked farmers and their wives squeezed between clumps of high school students. This rinky-dink county's entire population jostled for seats. I couldn't believe that folks really turned out for this. Donkeys!
Then the Amish came in. And kept coming in. And kept coming in. Women in translucent white bonnets and plain dark dresses. Men with long beards and no mustaches. Suspenders. Hundreds of jolly, wind-burned faces.
My father trotted over, huffing, and pointed across the court. Long-haired boys in tennis shoes passed the ball around at one basket. "That's them," he grunted. "The Amish team." They weren't impressive—short, skinny kids with bad skin. I hadn't thought they were Amish because of the untraditional clothing, but—I reasoned—they probably couldn't go out there in suspenders.
"Which one is the Rocket?"
"The one in the black T-shirt there," he said and pointed to an unremarkable kid with dark features. "Maybe you should go talk to him."
I pursed my lips. "I think I'll wait until after."
Dad nodded, deferring to my expertise. I rubbed my damp hands on my jeans, and he left to track down his donkey.
As the players mounted up, I noticed that the Amish boys did so with ease, their five donkeys moving placidly towards one end of the court. The players handled the ball well, passing it back and forth quickly. The Amish crowd hooted and yelled for the game to start.
Meanwhile, the "Dream Team" was having trouble with their donkeys. The sportscaster with immaculately coiffed hair did a strange, cantilevering dance across the gym floor with his. Whenever he threw a leg on the thin saddle, the donkey shuffled forward, and the sportscaster bellowed "Whoa!" and pogoed on one leg to catch up. The football coach made a high-pitched and womanly noise as his donkey charged forward with him clutching the animal's neck in terror. My father had managed to climb on, but his donkey orbited out of bounds. He leaned forward, attempting to whisper in its long ear as he cruised away from me.
I wondered what attracted my father to this bizarre pastime. His ideal version of basketball resembled a catapult tightened to maximum tension and released in a wonderful, powerful sweeping motion that launched something far and fast. Donkeys made this sort of operation impossible, so it wasn't the pleasure of a well-run play that made him trek all those miles. Their infamous stubbornness made most people look like terrible and ridiculous players. No matter how much you begged, yelled, cajoled, or threatened, the donkeys could not be forced to do anything, and my father seemed infatuated with their obliviousness. They also possessed the absolute opposite skills one would want for playing basketball. They walked slowly and changed directions unpredictably, often without provocation, wandering on and off the court.
But watching the Amish made me acutely aware that riding a donkey was more like cooperating than commanding. The Amish riders folded their agenda in with whatever the donkeys wanted to do, becoming perfectly unified.
The so-called "Dream Teamers" took almost fifteen minutes to get control of their animals. My dad piloted his, in a zigzag path, over to where I sat in the stands.
"What do you think?" he asked, clearly proud of his ability. His donkey started stepping backward. Though Dad bellowed for it to stop, it hauled him out to mid-court. "Am I ready for USA Today?"
"I think you make a formidable player," I yelled as he floated away. He finally waved me over to help. I hooked a hand through his donkey's bridle and drew them both back to the bleachers.
"Ready to try it yourself?" he asked, indicating an available donkey beside Coach Martin. "I had them save you a spot on the roster; our team needs a good center."
I actually did the maneuver where I pointed at my chest. "Me? Why did you do that, Dad?" I thought of myself gallivanting up the court, berating the donkey while the Amish whooped it up all around me.
He looked crushed that I didn't want to. "I can't think of a better way to cover this sport. Plus, you're kind of a celebrity."
This was getting out of hand. "I'm not a celebrity. I'm not writing anything for USA Today."
His eyebrows rose. "No article?" His shoulders hunched as they had in the car when he claimed he'd never been enough.
"There's no article; I wanted you to stop bothering Mom," I said. "I'm sorry, though. I'll write a piece for the Times-Union when I get back; I promise."
He cleared his throat and gazed down at the floor. "Have I been this much of an embarrassment?" His mouth had condensed into a furious white hyphen.
I clapped my hand over my eyes. "I also came because I was worried. I don't want you to end up like Aunt Trish."
He sighed. "Dan, I'm not senile or crazy, okay? Look at me."
I removed my hand. He and the animal were perfectly still; the donkey blinked. "All right, what am I seeing?" I said.
"A man in complete control."
"You're sure about that?"
He smiled and shook his head. "Not entirely," he said. "But you should see what it's like up here."
"You still want me to play?"
Another donkey brayed and my father's animal shied away. "When's the next time you'll do something like this?" He patted his animal to calm it. "Come on."
Coach Martin introduced me to a silvery wisp of a donkey named Selma, whose smooth fur felt good. I was too tall, so I kind of straddled her, like an adult on a kid's bike. She smelled like hay, rainwater, and dusty fields stretching to the horizon.
My father beamed. Coach Martin held Selma's reins; he leaned in close so I could hear over the cacophony in the gym. "You're the tallest on the squad. Want to do the tip?"
I nodded, and he guided me to midcourt. Then I was next to Craig Wietse and his donkey, whose saddle read: Charlene. He sat phone-pole-straight atop her. The kid was there to play. I itched for the tip-off, an anxious current coursing through my shoulders and back. I glanced over at my father, and he gave me, of all things, a thumbs-up.
The ref appeared, bent his legs, and sent the ball up. I swatted at it desperately. Craig Wietse snatched it and rode down the court, his donkey seeming to shove Selma out of the way. I tried to get her to turn and follow, but nothing doing. Instead, she walked to the side of the court and nosed around the team benches. The Amish screamed in triumph as their team scored. The sportscaster and the football coach yelled at each other. I told Coach Martin to get the ball, but his donkey was busy chewing on a towel it found on the sideline. My father cackled like a schoolboy, his steed thundering down the court in the wrong direction. The Amish Rocket waited with the ball beside our goal for one of our players.
I giddy-upped and squeezed Selma with my thighs, and she started toward the boy. Two of our team's donkeys had stopped: the big football coach howled in rage at his poor animal, and the sportscaster shouted "Get-along-there-mule!" My father's donkey rotated like a weathervane, and he turned pink with utter delight as Amish boys glided by like ships passing a lonesome iceberg. I rode up to Craig Wietse and turned Selma around—I thought—impressively. My father had wandered to the half-court line. I yanked the ball from the boy's hands and chucked it to Dad as hard as I could. He reached out and almost toppled off his donkey as it careened out of bounds.
"Nice throw," Wietse said and smiled what appeared to be a genuine smile.
"Thanks," I said. I nudged Selma, and we started down the court. As I passed my father, he was nodding and pointing. Then he made a megaphone with his hands and shouted something. I cupped a hand to my ear.
"See it before you do it," he called and closed his eyes. I shut mine and saw the rest of the day ahead: the defeat by the Amish Rocket, the cheap trophy we'd all get for participating, my dad's face when I left for Jacksonville, the lights of gratitude in his eyes.