from The Season of Gene, a novel
Sometimes, to my disadvantage, Theresa might let a book influence her thinking on particular matters. For example, she decided that I had mistaken laziness for contentment after reading The Purpose Driven Life. She also believed that thirty-six months was the limit of most relationships. Seeing how she and I were pushing the envelope at thirty-two months, I wasn’t all that surprised when she told me she was moving to Florida to manage a bar for an old boyfriend. Apparently, they had only dated for a year.
Theresa was heading down to Tampa for the weekend to scout some housing options and asked if I would keep her twelve-year-old son, Louis, while she was gone. Louis had been diagnosed with something called oppositional defiance disorder, but he and I got along pretty well. I kept him on Wednesday nights when Theresa tended bar and had even helped him write a school paper about the blue crab of the Chesapeake (We made an F on the report due to footnote problems.). Louis was a good kid – a motor-mouth smart ass, but not unlike my own self at that age. The only downside to having him around was that he routinely whipped my ass at Madden NFL on the PS2. He was something of a prodigy at that game; or at least I thought so.
I’d read about a Madden tournament online –– a grand to the winner –– being held at a Ramada Inn up in Philadelphia. It was the same weekend as Theresa’s trip to Florida, so I decided to take Louis to this tourney and see what kind of damage he could do in a high-pressure situation. I didn’t inform Theresa of the road trip since she wasn’t always comfortable with me driving Louis places due to the reasonable amount of pain medication that I had to take for the meniscus tear in my knee. So, Louis and I agreed to keep the trip to ourselves, not to mention any money we covered in the process.
I got a double room at the Ramada and brought along my PS2 so Louis could take some snaps the night before the competition. We ordered a couple of strip steaks from room service, some Black Forest cake, a half-dozen Heinekens for me, Cokes for Louis.
“Play something besides a cover two,” he said. “I’ll eat that shit up all day.”
“Well, what the fuck do you want me to do?”
“I don’t know. Move your linemen around, blitz a fucking linebacker every now and then, maybe a safety. I gotta get my eyes tight checking the defense. You’re too damn easy.”
I was sitting on the end of the bed, atop the dirty, flowered spread. Louis was on the floor in his McNabb jersey.
I tossed my controller on the carpet. “Fuck this,” I said. “You’re ready. Besides, you don’t wanna overdo it. Save something for tomorrow.”
Louis got up and went to the mini-bar, grabbed some peanut M&Ms and a Coke.
“How many of those you had?” I asked.
He looked at the Coke label as if it held the answer. “I don’t know.”
“Well, don’t overdo it,” I said. “You’ll never get to sleep.”
Louis flopped down on his bed. He smelled like damp laundry and was in need of a shower and fresh threads. Theresa told me to make sure he bathed every day. But he looked happy, so I didn’t say anything. He was running through the On Demand movie offerings, mainly the adult titles.
“Let’s order this one,” he said. “Teachers Lounge Gang Bang.”
“Forget it,” I said. “That shit’s not good for you.”
Louis snorted. “Yeah, like you don’t watch this shit.”
“I’m not kidding,” I said. “It’s not good for you. You watch that all the time, you get desensitized. You forget what being with a woman is all about. You gotta be respectful of girls.”
He lay back on the big pile of pillows and laughed like I’d just told a joke. The way he talked, I had to remind myself sometimes that I was dealing with a kid. There was only one time that he acted different, and that was the mornings I drove him to school for Theresa. He never said a word, just wore this long expression like he was being hauled off to do a ten-year stint at Rikers. When I drove away, he’d just stand at the curb, silent, backpack weighing him down. And that’s when I realized how skinny he was and how young he looked, young even for his age.
I took the remote control from Louis and pulled the easy chair around to where I could see the TV. I sat back in it and ran through the channels until I landed on the Phillies-Cardinals game.
Louis was listening to his iPod. I could hear T.I. “You can look me in my eyes, see I’m ready for whatever. Anything don’t kill me, make me better.”
He pulled off his headphones, draped them around his neck. “How much would it cost to live in a hotel like this?”
“More than you’re gonna make in that tournament tomorrow.”
“This is the way to roll,” he said. “I think I’m gonna live in a hotel.”
“It’s the way to go,” I said. “You got the room service, clean towels, laundry service, current-run movies, and no regular neighbors getting into your business.”
I told him about how my uncle Phil used to book a room at the St. Regis every year for the Super Bowl, how me and him would go into the city and order room service and watch the game. We’d have Little Neck clams and steaks, and he’d get me an ice bucket full of Cokes to go with his Heinekens, kind of like Louis and I were doing. We’d even bring along the Intellivision and hook it up to the hotel TV, play our own Super Bowl.
“Is that who you lived with?” he asked. “Your uncle?”
“Pretty much, yeah.”
“Sounds like you had the life,” he said.
It was the shit, all right. At least I’d thought so at the time. My uncle owned Phil’s Club Level Bar in Cliffside Park. He also managed a sub-book for some guys out of the city. It took me years to understand that Phil never was able to enjoy the cars, clothes, and girls. Always worrying, looking over his shoulder. He grumbled about the small cut that he was getting on the bookmaking side of things, and he took chances playing off bets when he was sure a team wouldn’t cover the spread. He made some lousy bets of his own and didn’t always keep his books balanced. The guys from the city were never happy with him. I was seventeen when he disappeared. I went looking for him at the bar. Blood was smeared on the floor in the back room. The file cabinets were turned over, flash paper scattered like leaves, the alley propped open by a softball bat, the same one I used hitting leadoff on the bar’s softball team. Phil’s Mets jacket lay amid the pile of wreckage, a soft pile of blue satin. I called the cops and sat there with my hands shaking. I didn’t even think to drown the flash paper. The cops rang me up on numbers charges, but I didn’t mind. I felt I’d deserved it.
* * *
The one thing I believed I could always trust was my brain. I never thought it would let me down. My mother, she’d had her problems. And whoever my father might have been, I just assumed I’d gotten his wiring up top. But lately it hadn’t been working so good. I couldn’t focus on anything. I’d get a shred of a thought, and then it would slip away and it’d be like chasing a gum wrapper in the wind – lots of gum wrappers, actually.
I went down to the lobby after Louis had fallen asleep. I had been trying to quit the pills, but my knee was hurting like shit. To make things worse, my thoughts were going round and round, overheating my brain.
I bought some Tylenol PM in the hotel gift shop, wandered into the bar and ordered a Jack and Ginger Ale. The place was crowded with the video game crowd. They were easy to spot in their jerseys. McNabb was well represented, along with Vick and Manning. Everybody wanted to be a quarterback. In addition to the D. Mac jersey, Louis had brought along his Ray Lewis and Randy Moss. I was thinking the Lewis jersey might be appropriate for the tournament. Defense wins championships.
The Madden guys were carrying their drinks over to the dart boards and pool table, hanging out there, playing games and watching SportsCenter.
There were two women sitting beside me who looked like they were in town on business, still wearing skirts and blouses. I respected their space, took a couple of Tylenols and drank my Jack and G. My intention all along had been to drive over to this drug recovery clinic where my mother taught yoga classes. Just drive by, that’s all. It was the sole link to her that I’d found on the Internet, a cached find from three years ago. It wouldn’t have been like her to stay somewhere for three years. But just in case, I wanted a chance to see what it was that she saw every day, to try and understand her perspective on things.
And then this business woman kind of caught my eye as she and her friend were leaving, so I gave her a friendly smile, nothing more. She looked about my age, dark hair and green eyes. A friendly face, too. Open and honest.
I ordered another Jack and ginger ale and thought it’d be the last one. My head was getting quiet, and I was thinking that going to sleep was probably a better idea than taking a drive.
“Do you think you could spare one of those?”
I turned around, and the woman I’d smiled at was back. She was pointing to my Tylenol.
“The gift shop’s closed,” she said. “I’ve got a bad headache.”
“Sure, I’m done with them.”
I handed her the box, and she sat down beside me, ordered a gin and tonic and lit a cigarette. She swallowed a couple of Tylenols, knocked back half the drink.
“So, what’s with all these guys wearing jerseys?” She looked back over her shoulder.
“Gamers,” I said.
She gave me a blank stare.
“Video games. They’re having a tournament in the ballroom tomorrow.”
She nodded. “Are you playing?”
“My son’s playing.”
She smiled. “How old is your son?”
I drew a blank. All I could do was sit there and stare at her, wondering why the hell I’d said that Louis was my son.
“Thirteen,” I said, finally.
She finished her drink, held it up to her lips for a while and let the last drops of alcohol drain from the ice. I could tell that she knew her way around a gin and tonic.
I kept on lying, told her that me and Louis’s mother were separated, that she was taking Louis to Florida against my wishes. And then I told her my own mother lived here in Philadelphia, that she was coming to watch Louis in the tournament tomorrow and then we were all going out for dinner.
It turned out the woman was a school teacher in Moorestown. Her friend was in town for an accounting conference, and they’d met for drinks. I asked her a lot of questions to keep myself from telling more lies. She drove a Jetta, played tennis, had seen Prince eleven times in concert, and hated the parents of the kids she taught. She believed they were raising “a bunch of egocentric, over-medicated assholes.” I learned a lot about her over the next two hours.
We went to the front desk and reserved another room. She and I watched “Teachers Lounge Gang Bang” and laughed and did our own thing until about three. When I got back to the other room, Louis was standing by the window talking on my cell phone.
“What the fuck are you doing?”
Louis turned around. “That’s him,” he said. “He just came in.”
He held out the phone for me to take it.
“Who are you talking to?”
He made a face and said it was Theresa. I knew what I was in for.
“What the hell are you doing at a Marriott in Philadelphia?”
“It’s a Ramada, actually.”
“I don’t give a fuck. Louis calls me at two-thirty saying he’s in a hotel in Philadelphia and you’ve disappeared. Do you think I need this?”
“I know, I…”
“Fuck you,” she said. “Let me talk to Louis.”
I handed him the phone, sat on the edge of the bed. Once he’d finished talking to her, I asked him what she’d said.
“Don’t worry. She said I could stay and play in the tournament.”
I nodded, flexed my knee. The pain had come back again.
“I thought you’d left.” Louis sounded like he was sorry he’d called Theresa. We generally had each other’s backs when she was mad about something.
“It’s all right,” I said.
“So, where’d you go?”
I was working the remote. I went through a few more stations, landed on ESPN Classic. They were running a Sports Century about Reggie Jackson, showing him and Billy Martin going at it in the visitor’s dugout at Fenway.
“I drove out to see my mother.”
He accepted the explanation like it made sense, like anybody might do the same thing at two a.m.
“Get some rest,” I said. “All those other guys are getting drunk down in the bar. You knock out six hours of sleep, and you should kick some serious ass tomorrow.”
Louis held up the room service menu that hangs on the back of the door. “I went with pancakes, Fruit Loops, and a Coke. You want anything?”
Theresa had told me to make sure Louis ate some eggs for breakfast, because the protein was good for his brain. She’d also given me his vitamins, which I’d forgotten back at my apartment.
“Make it two Cokes,” I said.
Louis hung the menu outside the door, dragged his bed spread over to the chair and curled up in it.
“You sure we can’t stay tomorrow night, too?” he asked.
“You can’t live in a hotel,” I said.
“Who said anything about living? If I win the tournament, I’ll pay for the room myself.”
I lay back on the bed and closed my eyes, the flickering of the TV like little explosions inside my eyelids. I found myself thinking about a place I’d stayed as a kid, a neighbor’s apartment and how it smelled like the hotel room, and how my mother said I wouldn’t have to spend the night there. About two in the morning, when the woman was asleep, I got on the phone and called the operator and tried to get the number of the guy my mother was with: something Tolliver. The operator wanted to help me. I could tell that she wanted to get me home, but I couldn’t remember the guy’s first name.
When I opened my eyes again, the chair was empty. Louis sat on the floor, PS2 controller in hand, the TV volume turned low as he marched the Eagles down the field. McNabb rolled right, a linebacker giving chase, receivers covered. Louis leaned into my line of vision just as the football left the quarterback’s hand. All I could see was the back of Louis’s small, round head, tilting right, then left, outlined by the pixilated grass on the TV. “Don’t force it,” I said. “Jesus, don’t make bad decisions.”
From the new novel by Dallas Hudgens, THE SEASON OF GENE, published in September 2007 by Scribner. Copyright © 2007 by Dallas Hudgens, reprinted by permission of Regal Literary Inc. as agents for the author. For more info on the novel and other stuff, check out Hudgens’ blog here