GOOD LOOKING OUT

Richard Chiem

24.01.18

AI

SOMETHING HAS SETTLED IN. I am helpless like a crumpled car, Spencer says. I am helpless like a crumpled car, he says, and this is how he wakes up every day. Something has settled in and run amok. The alarm rings, the phone vibrates and glows in the dark. There is a scratching feeling at the back of Spencer’s throat. As a bad habit from growing up impoverished in foster homes full of kids, Spencer never eats breakfast. He never even thinks about eating breakfast. He does this insane thing of waking up early in the morning: waking up at three in the morning. With a purpose, a will, and a way. Sleep is a mask and waking up is a portal, he thinks. Spencer reaches for the phone, takes off his mask, and steps hazily out from through the portal and out of bed.

He falls straight to the floor and turns his body into a motion of push-ups, then crunches, then stretches. The alarm rings again. His body warms, his lungs hug and expand against his ribcage. There are cold chill bumps on his chest and he feels a wave of anxiety. He can get dressed in under four minutes and he does, and he rushes out of the apartment complex into the streets with a little crazed look in his eye. Three a.m. Alone again. More and more waves of anxiety.

To everyone out there barely holding it together, to all you barely keeping it together, I am going a little harder for you today, he says. He breathes clouds. His hoodie is his best friend, and so are his Jordans. The pavement on the court is clean, the wind rattles the little flowers on the chain linked fence. There is no one else here and it’s the best fucking feeling in the world. A street lamp hovering over the park feels holy and sacred, and the light touches his feet. Adrenaline takes him to his element.

Spencer talks to himself often and it’s not even something to even think about anymore: he is his own circadian rhythm, doing his own thing. The greatest dread he ever has is saying the wrong thing, thinking the wrong thing, living in the real world. All he ever wants to do is to play basketball.

The world is going to end anyways. This is the God I pray by, Spencer says. He spins the Spalding and bounces the ball. He shoots and scores. More and more waves. Four a.m. When you play this early in the morning, you can’t miss, little one, you can’t brick.

Spencer talks to a little squirrel that runs close to him.

The squirrel stands on her hind legs, courageous as hell. It’s freezing cold outside.

What, Spencer asks? Do you think I can hit that backboard all the time? Do you think they’ll let me do this out here, making all that noise?

The squirrel does nothing, her fur hair frizzles and needles in the air.

No, he says. When you practice at three in the morning, you have to be sharp. You have to make your shot.

Spencer shoots and scores, the ball silently falls through the net.

_____

 

Q: CAN YOU TELL US SOMETHING TRAGIC ABOUT YOURSELF?

Spencer: My parents died in a car accident on the way to my high school basketball game.

Q: WHAT DO YOU DO?

Spencer: I am a basketball player.

Q: WHAT DO YOU DO FOR WORK?

Spencer: I am a basketball player.

Q: WHAT TEAM DO YOU PLAY FOR?

Spencer: I played for the Philadelphia 76ers on a ten-day contract. I play pick up at the YMCA now.

Q: HOW WAS YOUR TIME WITH THE 76ERS?

Spencer: I have an Allen Iverson story. It was the best experience of my life.

Q: HOW DID YOU MAKE IT TO THE NBA?

Spencer: You have to believe. You have to visualize yourself doing amazing things before you do amazing things. You have to workout and practice your ass off, for hours a day. You have to do it every day. Simple, not easy. And I never ate breakfast. I stay as hungry and as absurd as possible.

Q: WHAT DID YOU LEARN ABOUT YOURSELF PLAYING WITH THE 76ERS?

Spencer: The function of guilt is to repair, and I live with guilt like there’s no tomorrow.

_____

 

HIS BODY IS ALWAYS A little sore. His body is always destroying and slowly rebuilding itself from inside out, from the bones to the soul. But there are brief moments of perfect rest, and it’s like the body lifts itself from off the ground. The runner’s high, the superhuman serotonin body high. Spencer feels as though he weighs absolutely nothing and nothing hurts. He walks down the street as though he can move objects with his mind, the body hums in the air. This is the only happiness he allows himself now. Walking down the street, getting from point A to point B, swimming in the sounds of the city is a brief paradise. Something he was harnessing inside before, maybe it was tension, maybe it was stress, or maybe it was death or shame, melts away and is let go into the cold air.

All he wants to do is to play basketball.

His diet, his workout, his routine. Everything is perfectly regimented, smoothly measured, and timed. His calendar is his blueprint, the crossed out days on the paper are his building blocks. It’s the control and obsession that keeps his life steady, that keeps him from thinking too much.

From what Spencer remembers, his parents died when things were at an all-time high: he was feeling really good, feeling really on top of his game, feeling so locked in and happy. He remembers starting to see scouts at his games. He remembers consciously acknowledging out loud that he was feeling happy. Saying it out loud makes it more real somehow.

The semi truck collides into his parents’ Volvo from their blind side at such a speed to decapitate both riders. Broken glass pieces spread and fly out in packed nebulas all around the perimeter. Ambulances arrive and turn off their sirens. The pavement reflects red and blue, red and blue.

He remembers being told what time they died, some time around the beginning of the third quarter, where he vividly remembers cursing their name for not already being there, sitting in their seats, rooting his name when he would occasionally turn to glance at the stands: they weren’t there. He has a thought for every flashing camera light in the stands, for every pair of eyes on him. Rage and fire. All he ever wants to do is to play basketball.

Now happiness feels superstitious. Now when he’s happy, he’s thinking something bad is creeping up on him, some bad shit is bound to go down, and he doesn’t let his inner guard down. His walls stay walls. Some dog in fate always bites back when you’re happy. Dirty Murphy’s Law. Everything that can go wrong, does go wrong, and will go wrong. Guilt motivates Spencer and the guilt takes its host over. The birth of the universe means nothing. The end of the universe means nothing. All he wants is basketball.

Present day. Cloudy day. First day of the contract. A murder of crows fuck up a seagull above Spencer on his way to the practice arena. More and more fly in from the powerlines, flocking around their nests. Spencer loves all crows. With his gym bag over his shoulder, he raises his head and says, Don’t fuck with crows. The seagull is flapping wildly, his airspace is filled with pecking crows. Blood and feathers float above and lead the way.

Spencer dribbles the ball from the locker room to the floor.

They run drills, run miles, scrimmage endlessly, and repeat. His limbs and lungs burn, his clothes are soaking wet. His sneakers chirp on the gym floor like birds. His first game is the day after tomorrow and everyone already hates him, as they should. The way he handles himself is how they’ll get to know him. They elbow him, push him, and block up his lanes. He can barely get a shot off, the bodies collide into his airspace. Sweat equity. There’s break your back and then there’s break your back and then there’s what Spencer is willing to do. Skills develop out of necessity, he says. So I made it necessary. Spencer dribbles the ball with sores all over.

Are you talking to yourself, asks a voice? Are you really talking to yourself?

The locker room. There are towels sprawled everywhere and open cubbies, sneakers and jerseys are  spilling out of the wooden drawers. Calming low ceiling lights, lush paint color tones. All the benches and lights are parallel.

Everyone has left the locker room except for Spencer and Allen Iverson. It’s his MVP season. Classic white headband. I talk to myself too, man, he says.

A.I. doesn’t practice with the B squad and he doesn’t fuck with the B squad, but he’s hovering over Spencer, stoned face and holding a Louis Vuitton duffle bag. It swings in his fingers. His face makes no expression. Dehydrated as fuck, A.I. seems like a mirage to Spencer, like an afterglow.

A.I. says, Welcome, welcome.

I don’t haze, he says. That’s idiotic. But you have to do this one thing. You have to do this one thing.

Spencer is covered in sweat droplets.

A.I. drops the Louis Vuitton duffle bag at his feet. Spencer feels a little dizzy.

Do you remember that stupid thing back in high school? You have to take care of a fucking egg?

A.I. kicks the Louis Vuitton duffle bag and Spencer nods.

That’s your egg, he says. Don’t open it.

A.I. leans in very close to Spencer’s sweaty face.

Don’t open it, he says. Take care of it. I’ll see you at the end of the week.

_____

 

WHAT WE WORSHIP and bury deep down, however often, is a sweet science. Turn a desert to a well. The daily reheated soup and tried and true formula of how to get by, the survival of the fittest. I follow through, Spencer says. I follow through. He shoots his shot and leaves his wrist raised in the air with a serious dead stare on his face. It’s the same face he’s had on for years, a face that is up to something. Sugar and spice, blood, bone, and tissue. Clocks tick noon on the brick walls in the gym and the ball falls silently through the hoop. He’s made ten in a row now and he feels nothing; he’s been practicing in the gym for six hours straight with no rest, no food, only water. The alarm on his phone rings again, vibrating on the bleachers.

If his morning was a filmed time lapse, you’ll see lights in the gym rapidly come alive in those high ceilings and the city bus speeding past the practice arena through the open door. You’ll see no one else in the gym, shiny floors, gigantic empty bleachers. The one small body there, speeding back and forth, shooting ball after ball on the same hoop far off in the corner, is Spencer. Ball after ball: brick, make, make. Make, make, brick. Brick, make, make, make. The net moves as though struck by wind. Everything is sped up, colors and lights bleed and stream together.

You’ll see other bodies swarming in after a few hours: janitorial staff, medical staff, coaches, and other rookies. Then veteran players. Sneakers and sweats, fold-up chairs and bright colored water bottles. More orange balls are flying all over the time lapse, more bodies coming in and out. Everyone is their own hurricane, their own silent movie. In all six hours, you’ll won’t see Spencer talk to anyone, although there are people watching him, although he’s surrounded by people. It’s an ocean of smiles, movement, grimaces, and small talk galore. The alarm on his phone rings again, this time in his pocket.

He has gone weeks without really talking to anyone, without having a real conversation with anyone. Some mornings, it can be hours before he speaks. His mouth is dry and his voice is groggy. His mind sinks just enough. Killing myself in the gym prevents me from killing myself out there, Spencer thinks, looking out the windows at the skyscrapers, carrying the bulky Louis Vuitton duffle bag on his sore shoulders as he walks across the gym floor.

You don’t talk much, says a voice, a new voice.

No, Spencer says, I don’t talk much.

He’s sitting with a towel on his head, alone with a ball at his feet. When he looks up, it’s one of the athletic trainers, and she’s spinning a Spalding and throws it hard at him.

Spencer catches it and keeps it spinning and passes it back gently at her.

I don’t talk much either, she says. Or I talk to myself, she says.

Spencer wipes the sweat off his face with the towel. He says, I love talking to myself.

He feels a little lightheaded. He says, I mean, I talk to myself too.

My name is Hannah, she says. Her name is stitched on her jacket in red letters.

I’m Spencer, he says.

I know, Hannah says. I’m assigned to all the ten-days.

My parents died when I was in high school, Spencer says.

I know, Hannah says. The ceiling lights glow behind her, the gym floor squeaks. Spencer isolates all the sounds in the gym and meditates into a calming void. He’s sitting as though floating.

You look like you need to eat, she says.

Did you always wanted to be an athletic trainer, Spencer asks?

What did you say?

Did you always wanted to be an athletic trainer?

Hannah sits on the chair next to Spencer and their knees touch then separate like a soft metronome. She reaches down into her bag and hands him a protein bar. The plastic crinkles in their hands.

Not always, Hannah says. When I was a kid, she says. She pauses and takes a moment to think. I wanted to be a reporter, she says. I wanted to interview people and be on TV.

Do you want to interview me, Spencer asks?

Hannah laughs, almost under her breath. She looks at Spencer as though he’s looking right at her secret birthmark. She says, Okay, remembering the moment. A slow, Okay.

She takes her chair, spins it around, and she sits down so she’s face to face with him.

First question, she says. So you’re not a high school All-American, you didn’t play in college, and you weren’t drafted.

Yes, he says.

So how did you make it here? How did you even make the roster for a ten day? What moves you?

I think about Mike Tyson, Spencer says.

Mike Tyson?

Yeah, Mike Tyson. I remember watching an interview with him once and he was asked about his punch. Like, how does he punch so hard? Like, why are his punches so devastating, I think was the question, Spencer says.

Mike Tyson said he used to envision himself punching through the other guy’s head. That’s why he hit so hard. He was imagining his fist going right through his opponent’s head, Spencer says. So that’s what I do. I visualize every shot, every rebound, every run. I dream until it’s real.

I think that’s fascinating, Hannah says. And very flawed.

Why flawed?

Mike Tyson is a convicted rapist, she says. She almost leans in as her voice rises. Her voice is much quicker than his. You should know your heroes and who they were, she says. Who they really were.

You’re right, you’re right, Spencer says. I’m sorry. He seems more awake now, planets and stars aligned, back to the front of his mind. He sits tall in his seat, no longer dazed.

No, don’t be sorry, she says. Just don’t live blind. No blindness.

I won’t, he says. Good looking out.

Okay, she says. Second question.

Okay.

Hannah slides her foot slightly in between his legs and looks him in the eye. She kicks the bulky Louis Vuitton duffle bag on the floor: tap, tap.

What’s in the bag, Spencer? I’ve seen you carrying it around. What’s in the bag?

_____

 

WHEREVER YOU GO, THERE YOU ARE. His first game is a blessing, he has never seen so many riled up people ready to tear a player limb from limb. Everything is moving: lights, hot dogs, cameras, and Jumbotron, every color seems to pop and bounce. The crowd is nasty happy, hungry and moody. Smiles, drunk boos, and cold stares. Tonight is fire and emotion, spontaneous combustion. He plays only two minutes at the end of the game but they’re meaningful: he scored six straight points with good footwork and even passes ahead to A.I. for a fast break, and he gets a dumbass assist. A.I does a shimmy dance down the court and he mimes his hands like a gigantic ear to the screaming people. The way the crowd cheers and feeds off the action, it feels as though they could tumble over and trample him. Spencer is thinking, there’s not a soul in the crowd that understands him but they’ll love him in brief, perfect capitalism, and he’ll leave nothing behind on Earth.

During the final few seconds, A.I. mouths something Spencer can’t quite make out.

He comes close and A.I. smiles. Allen Iverson whispers into Spencer’s ear, I mean it. Take care of that bag, kid. You hear me?

A.I. scores forty points.

On the way to the tunnel, Spencer looks for Hannah, first along the bench, then rows by rows behind the benches. It doesn’t feel quite as electric as he imagined: having everything he wanted. They win by twenty and the crowd is still here. He finds Hannah and she’s not in uniform because she’s not working. She’s wearing a gorgeous, short black dress, and she’s standing in her seat holding a beer. Spencer feels as though he might have torn something, shooting sharp pain rises along his hamstring as he passes through the tunnel and he watches Hannah kiss a very tall, slender woman, holding her at the curve of her buttocks right underneath her short black dress. Who is she, indeed, Spencer thinks. Who is she?

_____

 

THINGS START TO UNRAVEL. He finds and loses the Louis Vuitton duffle bag. He loses and finds the Louis Vuitton bag. The anniversary of his parents’ death comes and goes, the high rent for his small apartment gets raised another thousand dollars, and his back goes out. The pain is unlike anything he has dealt with before and he imagines a sharp knife sawing against the bone and through spinal fluid. He gets zero minutes in his last official NBA game on the final day of his contract. Something has settled in and deepened. His hot hand is gone, his body is starting to cave in a little. No explosiveness, no rhythm and blues to his game. All his shots won’t go, even his spine is sore, and Spencer understands bad timing. The window of opportunity, the dread of fucking up.

Steady doubt clouds the mind and the air is stale. Ceiling lights buzz and die for a minute. Spencer sits and watches the other players walk by him and realizes he hasn’t made a home here, he doesn’t know them as he should know them. He doesn’t connect. He’s all taped up, banged up, and unknown still. He stops talking to himself, he stops a few lines of thinking, and no one talks to him. Waves and waves of anxiety tsunami.

The greater the illusion of grandeur, the greater the fall. It comes in a five minute meeting after a Sunday practice, with no big names in the meeting, with a small paper gift bag with the team’s logo stickered on it and a closed black folder: he doesn’t make the roster, he doesn’t get the contract extension, and they thank him for his time. He doesn’t make the team. There is a firm handshake and then a shut office door. No facial expressions, no emotion from management.

The locker room. They let him stay a few minutes after his last practice to gather his things. A door creaks open, and Allen Iverson comes through the door ajar. He’s wearing his shoes.

Feeling like he has nothing left, Spencer just waits on the bench. The Louis Vuitton duffle bag is at his feet.

Do you have the bag?

A.I. smiles because he can clearly see the bag. He looks around, then grabs a chair to sit down close in front of Spencer. He sits and leans back as though about to decree law upon the land.

Yes, Spencer says.

Did you take care of it?

Yes.

Open it.

Spencer reaches down and unzips the bulky Louis Vuitton duffle bag. He sees right away that it’s filled with cash, that it’s filled with bundles of cash, stacks of 100’s, tied with gold clips. The smell of cash even wafts up from the bag and Spencer feels as though the bag can explode at any moment like a ticking time bomb. He wonders if anyone else is around.

A.I says, Count it.

Spencer looks up at Allen Iverson and says nothing.

A.I. says, Count it out loud.

Spencer gets to the floor and starts to take the stacks of money out of the Louis Vuitton bag. He unclips each stack and looks up at A.I., but A.I. just waits there. Nothing moves across his face but a small sense of time.

Spencer starts to count the cash out loud, at first taking him time, every now and then taking a pause to look up at Allen Iverson, but A.I. just waits there.

$100,000. $250,000.

Spencer nervously looks at the clock. After taking almost an hour, Spencer licks his lips and stacks the last one hundred dollar bill: $500,000.

$500,000, A.I asks?

$500,000, Spencer says.

It’s all there, A.I. asks?

Spencer looks down at the stacks of cash. They are absurd towers.

Good, A.I. says. It’s all there. That means I can trust you.

Allen Iverson reaches down for one of the stacks and caresses one like a flipbook. He throws it to Spencer and Spencer catches it.

That means I can trust you, A.I. says. This is yours now. All of it.

Spencer leans further back on the floor and says nothing. Dehydrated as fuck, A.I. seems like a mirage to Spencer, like an afterglow.

A.I. says, One thing for sure, two things for certain, you’re made for this game right here. I’ve been watching you, Spencer, and so have my people. You’re made for basketball. You have the heart. I’m sorry today was cruel to you.

A.I. doesn’t blink and says, Another thing. Man, you play like you have a brick on you. Like a stone brick. Don’t get me wrong, man, you’re quick, you’re insane quick, and you’re smart.

A.I. taps his forehead.

I like your vision, he says, but it’s your shoulders, man. I can see it. All in your shoulders.

Allen Iverson throws him another stack of cash and Spencer catches it.

You have to let that shit go, whatever it is. That torment in your shoulders. Let it go, man.

Spencer drops the cash from his hands and some loose bills fly everywhere. Some stick to the floor.

A.I. says, Another thing. I’m not giving you the bag, though. I want my Louis Vuitton back.