The basketball bounced long into Jimmy Barton’s strong hands, and he dribbled straight at the player who’d shot and was now backpedaling, and as he passed half-court Jimmy planted his right foot and drove left but instantly cross-dribbled, twisting the defender onto the floor, and glided in for a lay-up. Haggin, the center, ran up waving long arms to harass the player trying to inbound, and the pass was lofted slightly too much and Jimmy Barton grabbed it as if he were the intended receiver, took one dribble, and went straight up for a jumper that almost blew out the net.
“Time out,” yelled the opposing coach, who grabbed the inbound passer’s arm when he reached the huddle.
“I didn’t see him, coach.”
“You’ve gotta know where he is all the time.”
Detected or not Jimmy Barton controlled every space he entered while scoring thirty-one points, six more than his average, and his El Lago High School team won by thirteen to stay unbeaten in league play.
At the party that night friends congratulated Jimmy as he sat on a sofa with his girlfriend, Karla, who held one hand and stroked his leg with her other soft one.
“Smitty, give me a beer, will yuh.”
“You don’t need it, Jimmy,” she said.
He’d only drunk alcohol twice, vomiting each time, and was determined to learn to handle beers like most guys.
“Here you go,” said Smith, a defensive tackle who during his off season had already become a drinking expert.
Jimmy grimaced after each sip, and said, “I can’t imagine anyone loving this shit,” and struggled a half hour to drink two cans of bitter beer before it started going down like water. When Karla objected, he asked one of his friends to take her home. She should have relaxed. Jimmy didn’t heave but woke up next morning with a foul mouth and head.
“Jimmy, what’s the matter with you?” said his mother.
“Nothing. It’s Saturday.”
“Get the hell outta here.”
“You wouldn’t talk to me like that if your father were here.”
Jimmy was glad his father was gone, living in another city with a new wife and their two infants. The old man would’ve ruined his dreams. He’d certainly screwed up the old ones, frequently commenting, “You spend so much time shooting that damn ball, and you’ll never make a dime at it.”
“I could make pros.”
“You’re not gonna make pros. Do your homework.”
* * *
“Get in their faces,” Jimmy screamed at teammates during the section title game against Central High. He was the only El Lago player comfortable with fast city ball. In summers he’d tried to take teammates downtown to play pickup games but they didn’t like driving by drug dealers and hookers, and feared leaving their sleek cars in parking lots, and above all they did not like the trash talk, which could be stopped if you attacked on offense and defense. But the suburban guys wouldn’t do it. All night Central High hounded El Lago and, despite thirty-three points by Jimmy, rumbled to victory.
“Don’t worry,” El Lago fans told Jimmy. “You’ll be playing at the next level.”
In a few weeks Jimmy had stopped brooding about basketball. It no longer mattered He’d gotten drunk at another party and Karla caught him necking with a cheerleader out by the pool. He apologized, and later sobbed when he learned she’d starting going with some guy from the debating team who laid her the first date. Everyone knew. It had taken Jimmy several months.
“Snap out of it, Jimmy,” said his coach. “You’ve got scholarships to consider.”
“I’m only playing for a major program. Why aren’t they calling? I torched that punk from Central High, and everyone wants him.”
“They like his athleticism. We’re talking about a guard who touches the rim with his head.”
“Prove everyone wrong. Play JC ball a couple of years, then try to get an offer from an upper-level D-1 team. But remember, you’re not going to play anywhere unless you get back in the classroom. And get your ass back in the gym.”
Jimmy wanted a break. Instead of going to school in the mornings, he now went to the houses of new friends and smoked pot and laughed and ate junk food and listened to loud music. He didn’t drink in the mornings, though. That would have been a crash. He just needed good green weed. As spring afternoons warmed up he floated out to parks among trees and bushes along the river and drank cold beers before switching back to weed. He was proud how rapidly he’d mastered this new and creative way of living, and he and the other guys disapproved of those sitting like hams in classrooms.
“Jimmy, I’m worried about you,” said his mother.
He stared at the window.
“You’re pale and sniffling so much. Do you have an allergy? What have you been doing?”
“I’m not doing anything.”
“You certainly aren’t. The school keeps calling me about your absences. Listen, Jimmy, I got another call.”
“Doesn’t matter. I got a call and I know what you’re doing.”
“Then why’d you ask?”
“I wanted you to tell me.”
He was still staring at the window.
“Your father will be here tonight, Jimmy.”
“Well, I won’t.”
“Yes, you will. I took your car keys.”
“No problem, I’ll call my buddies.”
“Your father wants to see you.”
That night he said, “Jimmy, I hope you remember what I told you.”
“Yeah, basketball’s bad.”
“It’s fine, but insignificant compared to studying.”
“Jimmy doesn’t even play basketball anymore.”
“That shows,” said his father. “And here you are, not even graduated from high school.”
“He’s not going to graduate unless he finishes his U.S government class and a couple of others.”
“I don’t need to graduate.”
“Jesus Christ, Jimmy, in America only future bums and convicts fail to graduate,” said his father. “And high school’s far less than the absolute minimum. You’ve got to be disciplined and learn to do something to support yourself.”
Jimmy did not understand bourgeois talk. Only the senior prom mattered. He had to convince Evelyn to be his date, and that was easy. She’d had a crush on him for years.
On prom night he wore a rented white tux, borrowed his mother’s black Cadillac, handed Evelyn a bright and fragrant bouquet, respectfully greeted her parents, opened the car door for her, got in the other side, reached for the floor, pulled up an open beer, and said: “You want one, too?”
Evelyn reluctantly took a sip of his, and they moved on to meet three other couples at a French restaurant. One of the girls had studied French four years and translated the menu and ordered for everyone. When she finished, Jimmy gallantly said, “And four bottles of champagne, the best.”
“Certainly, Monsieur – in three years,” said the waiter.
One of the guys later pulled out a flask and passed it around. Jimmy did not like the whiskey, and urged everyone to eat up so they could party.
Driving to the dance Jimmy drank three beers then filled his pockets and Evelyn’s purse with several cans and put an arm around her and escorted her into the community center ballroom decorated with wreaths and banners and filled with attractive couples who looked so mature. Jimmy chose a seat where he could watch Karla, her thick brown hair shining way down her back.
While Jimmy drank, the soulful band played for a group of primarily stiff and repetitious dancers who, when they loosened up, danced even worse. Eventually, Jimmy tried some slow moves on the floor, putting his arms around Evelyn’s neck, hugging her as he looked for Karla, who seemed unaware he was in the room. Late that night Jimmy went over to her table and said, “Madam, may I please have the next dance?”
“No, thank you.”
“Come on, just one.”
“No means no, Barton,” said the debater.
“Shut your mouth, punk.”
“Jimmy, go sit down,” Karla said.
“I don’t wanna sit. I wanna dance with you.”
The debater stood up fast and Jimmy punched him in the nose.
Security guards rushed in and grabbed Jimmy and were going to call the police but Jimmy and his buddies convinced them he’d only acted to defend himself. And perhaps he had.
Karla ministered to and kissed her new boyfriend before helping him up and leading him away.
* * *
A few weeks later Jimmy’s father was sitting next to Jimmy’s former coach and across from Jimmy and his mother.
“Jimmy, this is the most humiliating experience of my life,” his father said.
“One of my worst, too,” said the coach. “You have so much promise. It just burns me you threw away scholarship offers. But don’t give up. I’ve already talked to the coach at City College. If you take classes this summer and get your diploma, he thinks you can earn a starting spot. He wants to see you the first day of school.”
“Yeah, but I don’t want to see him.”
“You’d better be interested, at least in school, or you’ll be living on the goddamn streets,” said his father.
“That’s right, Jimmy,” said his mother.
“Don’t worry, I’m not leaving.”
“Jimmy, and your mother agrees with me on this, you won’t be permitted to live here and do nothing, to drink and god knows what else. You’ve either got to go to school or get a job. In fact, we may require you to do both.”
“They’re right, Jimmy,” said the coach. “And will you please get back in the gym?”
Jimmy wanted a longer vacation from basketball but agreed to go to summer school. The first day – two three-hour classes – he listened and took notes and wrote down assignments, and at home after dinner he tried to read the books but could not concentrate. A half-hour into the second day Jimmy rose from his desk, walked to his car, opened the ash tray, plucked a perfectly rolled joint, put it in his mouth and lit it and inhaled pungent smoke quickly sedating his brain but also prompting him to stare in the rearview mirror at red eyes above darkening circles on a very pale face. Imagine if Karla saw him. He’d want her to understand he wasn’t always ugly. He wouldn’t be when he was no longer loaded. But he wouldn’t want to be unloaded long.
“Jimmy, I have wonderful news,” his mother said shortly before registration deadline. “I called a counselor at City College, and you don’t have to be a high school graduate to go to a community college. All you need is to be eighteen. And in two years, when you get your AA degree, you can go straight to a university. Isn’t that great?”
Jimmy never saw the coach at City College but lasted three weeks before he stopped attending classes. He decided he did not need them, and began studying on his own in the library where he went every morning. Now he read literature and history from a list he’d compiled and was sure he learned more than by listening to the babble of self-impressed teachers. This routine also enabled him to smoke a joint of good stuff before school and, when required, take a few quick puffs in an obscure spot in the big library. He had to be careful, though. People were always looking mean at him.
“Jimmy, your father and I want to see your report card.”
“I don’t have it.”
“Where is it?”
“It doesn’t exist.”
“Then you’ll have to get a job.”
“I’m not taking some menial job.”
“Either get a job or move out now.”
“What if no one’ll hire me?”
“Your father’s already taken care of that.”
Within a week Jimmy was loading trucks in the warehouse of a building contractor and driving the material to construction sites all over California. He was amazed how heavy everything was in construction and disgusted his sweat was not pure like a basketball player’s but the rancid sweat of a pack mule. Jimmy longed for weekends when he could hole up in his recently-rented studio at the rear of a house in the bad part of town and watch football and basketball games, turning off the sound and letting images of vigor shine on him as he ate big bowls of sliced peaches and bananas with sugar and milk while sucking hot weed that deadened his feelings and opened his mind and closed him in. He never considered leaving at night until he’d cooled his throat with a six pack. That picked him up and got him in the shower at nine p.m. His fellow material handler, Hightower, was expecting him this Saturday night.
“Jimmy, have a tequila sunrise,” said Hightower.
“No thanks. I don’t drink alcohol, only beer.”
“There’ll be lots of babes at the party.”
He didn’t reply.
“You can’t keep thinking about that chick, Jimmy.”
“I’m gonna get her back.”
Some guy’s parents were out of town, and their beautiful home and its large backyard were full of young people passing bottles and joints as they listened to window-rattling music.
“Over there,” said Hightower. He tugged Jimmy’s elbow and led him to two slender blonds wearing jeans and bright tank tops. “My friend and I can’t believe how beautiful you are. Are you models?”
“We’ve done some at the mall,” said the shorter girl.
“I gotta get over there more often. Wanna dance?”
Hightower took the shorter girl’s hand and eased her to a place where several couples swayed.
“So, what do you do?” Jimmy said.
“I go to City College.”
“I used to.”
“What did you study?”
“I studied there independently. I don’t need school.”
“What’re you doing now?”
“I’m a material handler.”
She glanced into the night.
“You wanna smoke a joint?” Jimmy asked.
He mumbled “cool” and walked to the far corner of the yard, behind a huge oleander bush, and started taking big hits.
* * *
“Listen to me, Son,” Jimmy’s father said, “you must quit smoking pot.”
“I’ve quit lots of times.”
“When I don’t smoke I get down and hyper, and I’m awake all night.”
“You need discipline.”
“What Jimmy needs is a psychiatrist,” said his mother.
At the clinic he answered several pages of intrusive questions and then was taken into a cold room where he waited a long time before Dr. Blanchard entered and introduced himself and said, “Let’s see, on your chart you indicate there’s a family history of depression. Your parents?”
“Brother and sisters?”
“I don’t have any. My father’s sister definitely isn’t right.”
“Has she had professional treatment?”
The doctor wrote fast on clipboard in his lap.
“And that woman’s mother, my grandmother, was crazy most of her life.”
“We don’t use words like that anymore, Jimmy. She was ill. Was she ever hospitalized?”
“Often. And her brother was worse.”
“What was he like?”
“He used to go around looking in windows, and eventually shot himself in his neighbor’s yard.”
“Do you own a gun, Jimmy?”
“Do you have access to one?”
“Have you ever thought of suicide?”
“No. But I can’t take this forever.”
“There’s relief, Jimmy. I promise you modern medicine offers many psychopharmacological wonders. We’ll start you on elavil, an antidepressant. Take fifty milligrams a day for a week, then a hundred for a week, then we’ll maintain you at a hundred fifty a day.
“Beyond that, there are reactive reasons, factors in your environment, that also account for the way you are, and I think we should meet once a week for a half hour.”
“How much does that cost?”
“Don’t worry. Your parents are taking care of it.”
“What do you want to talk about?”
“What’s most important is what you want to talk about.”
“I still miss my girlfriend.”
“Is she out of town?”
“No. She broke up with me.”
How long has it been?”
“And you still want to be with her?”
“Do you ever talk to her?”
“I try sometimes but she always hangs up or slams the door.”
“Jimmy, a therapist has to be very careful giving advice, but it’s my professional duty to tell you that you must stay away from her.”
“I’m not going to hurt her.”
“Are you sure?”
“Beyond your personal feelings, you have to concern yourself with legal matters. Has she gotten a restraining order?”
“No, but her husband threatened to.”
“Jimmy, in cases like this, when so much time has elapsed, you need to accept you’re feeling bad for reasons other than an ex-girlfriend. Have you had any girlfriends since?”
“How often do you date?”
“How long do these relationships last?”
“Usually just one time.”
* * *
Jimmy didn’t think he’d ever taken anything as strong as elavil, except when he’d dropped LSD. Though he wasn’t actually hallucinating now, his vision was blurred and his skin clammy, and he couldn’t let anyone look into his eyes. Symptoms worsened as dosages were increased to therapeutic levels, and his depression remained, so he resumed smoking pot and drinking, and his face bloated and looked spooky.
“You’ve got to be patient, Jimmy,” said the doctor.
“I’ve already been on this stuff too long.”
“We can give you something else.”
Jimmy tried doxepin for several months, then triavil, and a torrent of other medications with strange names and wicked side effects until, following three years of treatment, the doctor announced: “Let’s throw everything out – you aren’t keeping old medications around, are you, Jimmy?”
“Good. We’ll put you on the most promising psychotropic medication I’ve ever seen.”
Prozac gave him headaches, stomachaches and cramps, and did not ease his mind nor did other new and popular medications. Jimmy hoped basketball would help. He bought a pair each of gym shorts, tube socks, and the latest basketball shoes, and went to the YMCA and shot air balls his first three practice shots and was the last guy chosen for a five-on-five full-court game. Then the ball began pounding the floor, wood screeched rubber soles, walls echoed grunts, the ball battered the rim and whistled nets, and everything was familiar and stimulating but a couple of minutes into the game Jimmy was gasping and not looking when the ball smacked the side of his face.
“Heads up, fatso,” yelled a teammate.
A few minutes later, not having shot but having committed several turnovers and permitted his man to score often, Jimmy raised his hand for relief from the sidelines.
* * *
“Are you still smoking pot, Jimmy?” the doctor asked.
“That’s a big part of the problem.”
“I couldn’t survive without it.”
“Are you serious?”
“I’ve been going to the medical library and reading the Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry and lots of other books.”
“That’s fine, Jimmy, but you’re a layman.”
“And I’m talking in lay terms. My brain’s making chemicals that might as well be acid.”
“I understand, Jimmy.”
“What do we do?”
“There’s another promising medication. I want you to give it a try and write down what you think.”
Jimmy got the new stuff at the pharmacy and went back to his filthy room at the rear of a house in the bad part of town and spent the rest of the day cleaning his place. A guy can be clean in a dirty place, but Karla wouldn’t understand. She wouldn’t have to because Jimmy’s place was immaculate. He felt proud looking at the framed picture of himself, arm around Karla after a big game, and put on his gym shorts and tube socks and basketball shoes, and turned on the air conditioner and pounded the ball on the old tile floor.