There I was in the opulent, spacious lobby of Harrison Hall at Purdue University on a Sunday afternoon in July, a chest high stack of soggy pizza boxes on the floor next to me, the room swarming with young boys ages 10 to 13 here for a week of basketball camp. In that week, they stayed in the dorms, bussed back and forth to Mackey Arena for drills and scrimmages, and ate dorm food morning, noon and night except for Sunday evenings when they were expected to get their own dinner, though since they were not allowed to wander, four West Lafayette area pizza places including the one I worked for were invited to set up and sell our food.
In some ways it should’ve been the perfect gig for me. I didn’t necessarily look like a basketball player, dressed as I was in a bright green paisley-covered button up shirt with one side seam ripped all the way open, black jeans covered in leather patches with a red bandana around my neck and hair past my shoulders. But I am tall and more to the point, I played basketball, two or three times a week at this point—full-court pickup games at the University Co-rec and on the Levee outside courts down along the banks of the Wabash River—and was pretty sure I knew as much or more about basketball than any of the delivery guys for the other pizza places set up on either side of me, the big boys of Dominos, Venos, and Pizza Hut.
The problem was, the regular delivery guys weren’t manning their booths. Instead they hired Purdue University basketball players to hawk their pizza, giant, watery soft drinks and foil-wrapped sandwiches. Ten feet to my right was Keith Edmonson, who went on to play in the NBA and was at that moment slated to be their best player in the Fall because Joe Barry Carroll had just graduated, and on my other side, Jon Kitchel, something of an Indiana high school basketball legend, and ten feet to his right, Roosevelt Barnes, who ended up playing four years in the NFL as a linebacker for the Detroit Lions. All three were members of the Purdue men’s basketball team that had just three months before made it all the way to the Final Four, losing to UCLA in a game played in Indianapolis 65 miles away. Every one of these kids knew exactly who each of these guys were.
It wasn’t that they loomed over me—Kitchel and Edmonson were only an inch taller than I was and Barnes was probably shorter—but dressed in their crisp Purdue colors sweats and looking so completely and utterly like basketball players, they exuded that vibe, a loosey goosey mix of physical grace and low key jock presence, a kind of cool swagger that other ballplayers recognize the way two of the same species of bats find each other in a dense jungle, even though there are hundreds of other bats who look more or less the same. I liked to think I had some of that swagger on the court—I’d been playing ball since I was old enough to walk—but even at my most delusional I couldn’t pretend to be in their league as a player. I was just one of those endless number of Hoosiers who had played the game their entire life, could shoot and pass, knew how to set and use a pick, how to roll to the rim, how to block out on rebounds and step over on defense. And I was wearing the same basketball shoes I grew up playing in—high-top Chuck Taylors—but it had been a decade since anyone had actually worn Chuck Taylors to play in and my wearing them here gave me no props from the energized gangs of young boys roaming the space in front of me, all of them wearing much fancier basketball shoes and sweats.
I’d argued with my boss Al that we should go for quality—double cheese and meat and a sign saying exactly that—but as always, he did it his way, putting half the cheese and sauce of a regular pie, figuring the only thing that really mattered was we were there and had pizza. “They’ll come around to you eventually,” he said.
Al’s restaurant was called Club Caboose (no “The”) and sat in a large weed and dirt lot just over the Wabash River in Lafayette, a bare bones raw wood building attached to an actual train caboose converted to a diner, which was something of a joke because we really didn’t have walk-in guests and were only busy on site once a month or so when fraternities rented the whole place out. Al made the bulk of his living via deliveries and did it by outlasting the competition, staying open a half hour later than Dominos or Venos, which meant we did half of an entire night’s deliveries after 1 a.m., always to the dorms across the river. Many nights I was at the restaurant alone; I’d take a delivery order on the phone, make the pizza and put it in the oven, call Al who’d drive over and watch the place while I delivered the pizza and returned, then he’d leave again until the next delivery. Only at the end of the night would he stick around for the after 1 a.m. rush. I’d graduated from Purdue in December with a degree in Journalism and was sticking around town because I had a girlfriend still in school. Within a year, things would be over with us and I’d be living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, but at the time, I was willing to do anything to stick around and wait for her.
I also made what might have been in retrospect a mistake, eating two small stems of psilocybin mushrooms I had found in a baggie in my freezer at home and had stuffed into my pocket on the way out that morning, thinking I’d scope out the situation. And when I realized I wasn’t going to see a kid for at least 45 minutes, I’d chewed them up and forced them down with a swig of soda. They were so old I had no memory of putting them in there and assumed they’d lost most of their potency. I was wrong. And because I hadn’t eaten lunch, they hit me hard and fast. Still, I would’ve been fine if everyone just stayed away from me for a few minutes until I could settle into it and it seemed to be going that way, the waves of laughing, shoving, farting (yes, there seemed to be a contest), whispering children parted around me like an island in a stream, aiming towards Edmonson, Kitchel and Barnes (more or less in that order). Things were happening all around me. Outside the large bank of windows, streams of birds made black streaks in the sky that turned to colors then to letters before dissipating like a jet’s contrails. And inside, every single person was moving in a strange, herky jerky stop motion animation way, like Harryhausen creatures from any number of movies over the past 30 years. It was at this point that a single kid approached my table.
I tried to ignore him and concentrate on the birds outside and their lovely way of being in the world, but I could see the people all around me in my peripheral vision and it was coming to be something of a problem. In all those Harryhausen movies, it was the Cyclops, serpent women and flying harpies that moved that way and even if I knew the truth, I was having trouble tamping down the rising panic of being surrounded by monsters.
“I said,” the kid said, as if weary and put out, “What do you have?” Apparently he had already spoken to me.
“For pizza, what kind of pizza?”
The kid was tallish, flabby on his way to being fat but not quite there (it could go either) and had long, draping arms and huge hands for a kid and he was demonstrative, flapping and swinging his arms to reinforce whatever point he was making, which in context felt ominous and unnatural, his body seemingly contorting into inhuman shapes.
“Pizza?” was all I could think of to say. It was those damn fighting skeletons in Jason and the Argonauts, burned into my brain at an early age, when I was most susceptible.
“Yes, of course, pizza.”
“You’re freaking me out, kid.”
“Just join your friends.” I meant the columns of kids to my left and right, in Keith Edmonson and Jon Kitchel’s lines.
“They’re not my friends.”
There was something about the way he said it, the catch in his voice just below the surface, the hint of revulsion that someone might think he was friends with these kids and a bitterness that he wasn’t, and just like that, my head cleared. I could see right into that kid, see a life he didn’t understand how to navigate, a kid who was here because he was a real player and he was a real player because he had spent endless hours by himself shooting baskets at a rim somewhere. Being on mushrooms made the clarity and certainty with which I saw all of this unbearable. His sadness loomed. I had to get rid of him. I dropped the top pie on my stack on the table and pushed it towards him.
“Just take it.”
“What is it?”
“It’s a good pie, just take it.”
I picked it up and shoved it at him, forcing him to make an awkward grab at it and a $5 bill which he’d obviously been gripping popped into view. He looked at the bill, at me looking at it, back at the bill, which seemed to be announcing itself to me.
“I’ll take that,” I said and snatched the five.
“Thanks?” he said, backing away as you might from a wild animal before turning and walking briskly towards the bank of elevators.
In the end, it went the way Al expected it to. The Big Three ran out of pizza and sandwiches about 45 minutes in and the stragglers had no choice but to come to me. I sold everything I had, staying an extra half hour to do it. The drug remained remarkably steady and strong, though by then I’d acclimated. On the way out, I walked past Edmonson who was leaning on a wall talking to a girl who was wearing a tennis outfit and seemed to be two impossibly long, tanned legs with a head sitting on top. No body. I said to Edmonson in the spirit of shared labor, “Some day, huh?” and he nodded and fake-wiped sweat off his brow and shook it out, but the girl narrowed her eyes and curled her nose, like I was a bad smell, and her head swelled and her face changed into something demonic. I was pretty sure she hissed at me. I pushed through to the cool evening air, which altered the mood considerably to the better. Later I’d realize she had braces.
Walking to my car, I saw the kid. He was shooting baskets by himself on a court attached to the residence halls, even though there was a group of camp kids playing a sloppy game at the opposite end. I was gratified to see he had a natural stroke and shot above his head, which was unusual at his age. He had that mechanical focus, firing one shot after another, chasing down the misses, setting up in different spots on the court. And when he made shots, the ball really popped the net just so, sending it spinning back to him. I’d spent endless hours shooting baskets at our single rim over the garage, but most of the time, my father was there with me, playing horse, or rebounding for me or especially playing one on one. We played one on one as a way of settling everything; who would mow the lawn, walk the dog, wash the dishes after dinner, whether my sister and I got to watch for the 100th time The Wizard of Oz, who picked first in our annual bet on the Indy 500. I recognized the kid’s life, time spent alone on a court because it was better to be there than anywhere else, but it wasn’t mine.
I was having trouble shaking the girl’s reaction, I was used to something closer to benign disinterest from sorority type women on campus, but I’d never seen such furious and instantaneous hostility. It was hard not to take it personally. I decided I’d go to Kroger, buy some sun-dried tomatoes, fresh pasta, parmesan cheese, and arugula (it was my go-to recipe, simple with some elegance) and show up at my girlfriend’s door after her shift at the student newspaper is over and make her dinner and after, we’ll sit on her couch and watch TV with her roommates and I’ll slip my hand inside her shirt when we get a moment alone and she’ll throw her legs over mine and we’ll hold each other until that image of the girl’s demonic face is gone.
I still had much of an afternoon to kill. I angled over to the kid who stared at me with a blank expression and kept shooting. I rebounded a miss and fired it back to him.
“Your pizza sucked,” he said.
“Really sucked,” he said.
“This is not news,” I said.
He tossed me the ball, I stepped out to the three point line and shot and hit nothing but net just so he knew where I was coming from, then I bounce-passed the ball to him and for the next hour, let him shoot and shoot and shoot in rhythm, without him ever having to worry about chasing down his misses.
Michael Backus’s work has appeared in One Story, The Portland Review, The Sycamore Review, Exquisite Corpse, Verb, Storyhead, The High Hat, The Writer, and Hanging Loose. A novel, Double, was published in the Fall of 2012 by Xynobooks Publishing. He teaches creative writing, composition, and film studies classes at Marymount Manhattan College and fiction writing at Gotham Writer’s Workshop. He has an MFA from Columbia College in Chicago and lives in East Harlem, New York City.
Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece?
A: It was a non-fiction piece so I had a good idea where it was going, but it also happened some time ago and when I got to the section where my character rebounds the basketball for the outcast boy, I had to ponder my motivations. I remembered doing it but why was a whole other thing. When I started, I imagined that the motivation was I saw some of myself in this kid, but as I wrote, I realized, that’s not true. I didn’t spend hours shooting baskets by myself as a kid because my home life sucked, I spent hours shooting in our driveway with my father. It was a completely different dynamic from my perception of this kid’s life. This realization actually added a nice layer to the piece and allowed my character to step forward as an adult in this situation, something (him being an adult) that wasn’t at all obvious in the lead up to the ending.
Q:What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: That the only way to learn to write is to write. It’s the same advice I give my own students. There’s something reassuring about the simplicity of this advice, how easy it is conceptually and how difficult it can be on a practical level. I have tried to write every day for the past 15 or 20 years and have (I hope) succeeded more often than I’ve failed.
Q: What three to five authors and/or books have inspired your journey as a writer?
A: Flannery O’Connor was the first writer whose work made me think about the process of writing itself and after that, the short stories of Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, Joy Williams and Denis Johnson formed a kind of conga line of influence. I’d toss in Robert Stone, who opened up worlds both literal and spiritual, and Jim Harrison, who continues to have such a lively mind, it’s inspiring.
Q: Describe your writing space for us. Are you someone who finds the muse in a public space such as a café, or in a cave of one’s own?
A: I essentially write in two places, home and work, and since my laptop became because of age and various piddling malfunctions essentially a desktop, I can no longer go to public spaces to write, though I’ve had some success with that in the past. One thing that really works for me is I’m currently using my television as a monitor. This is useful beyond the obvious benefit of having a very large monitor. Writing is hard and painful and I’ll often use any excuse to do something (anything) else, with watching TV high on that list. But with my current setup, that’s not possible. It’s either computer or TV, so I’m spared the indignity of sitting in front of the TV with my computer on my lap, half-assing my way through writing AND TV watching.