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Earthmovers (TGWP 4)

August 15, 2016

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This is the fourth installment of the novel This Game We Play by Greg Blake Miller, continued from “The Old Man and the Gym (TGWP 3)”.

A coach’s family lives by a calendar all its own. October, for us, was basketball’s springtime, March was high summer, and everything that followed was one long winter. Sure, the off-season was recruiting time, draining in itself, but my father was always more a creature of the court than the Rolodex, and for him the off-season always felt somehow off, a suspension of the natural order of things. He tried as much as he could to make the off-season family time, and I’d say he did a good job of it, though I’d also say those days were always cozy on the surface and a little anxious underneath. Each time of year had its signature household scenes, constant as the seasons themselves and no sooner forgotten than one’s own name; I could summon the scenes to my mind at will, though sometimes they’d summon me. They’d descend like daydreams at all sorts of times—in the middle of exams, for instance, or at the beginning of job interviews—and for a few minutes I’d live my father’s life, or the life of his team. It was a sort of mental comfort food, even when it was uncomfortable.

I was headed south across the valley toward the hillside housing development of Inverness, where my mother—and I saw this plain as the road before me—was balancing an anthropomorphized plush tornado named Dusty the Dust Flame on the edge of the grandfather clock’s open well. I saw her stepping back, admiring Dusty, questioning her admiration, moving him to the center of the kitchen island, realizing the space would be occupied by hors d’oevres, transferring him to the fireplace mantel, where he didn’t look right at all, and finally back to the grandfather clock. I saw that Dad’s six engraved-glass Western Sun Athletic Conference Coach of the Year plaques, which he had pointedly consigned to a box in the garage, were today lined up on the back windowsill. I saw the sun slant through them, tossing the inverse shadow of Dad’s name onto the honey-tan slate floor. Tonight was the Tip-Off Cocktail, a booster-appreciation stunt conceived by Athletic Director Tom Fig; it was the one night a year when Dad tolerated the presence of those plaques in the house. Mom liked them there. She’d polished them to a shine.

A dump truck full of newly excavated earth pulled in front of me; an errant pebble tapped my windshield; another hit the hood. I rolled up the windows, spotted an opening, passed the truck, heard the honk, saw the raised finger. Somehow I managed this with my eyes already at my parents’ house, watching their gentler ritual play out. Sometimes I am where I am less than I am where I’m not.

It’s well past five; soon guests will arrive. Mom takes an old green toothbrush from the utility drawer and scrubs at a red spot on the kitchen island grout. She works hard at this. This is her sport. My mother is sinewy, like my father. They both have busy muscles, busy limbs, busy faces, busy minds; everything is busy under my parents’ skin; there are entire roiling substrata of unresolved geology in there. They belong together.

The stain is not part of the usual ritual; it appeared just three days before, but it begets behavior that itself is ritualized—the strenuous cleaning, the gentle nagging, the cheerful retort. These things, too, I see from the road, three miles and ten stoplights from the house. The day the stain showed up, a Band-Aid had appeared on my father’s left index finger. Now my mother is scrubbing, and the red will not come out of the grout. “Next time you want to cut tomatoes,” she shouts, “just ask me!” Dad is in the bedroom, applying a fingerprint of tissue paper to a shaving cut on his chin. “Jackie,” he says, “you’ve got yourself a deal.”

At the crossroads of Black Rock and Inverness, the daydream of my family’s consistency was counterbalanced by the visible fact that my city kept getting bigger and uglier. Black Rock Highway was once a two-lane ranch road but had been recently consumed by earthmovers and made modern in Zantrum’s millennial race for more. Here, where the old road met brand-new Inverness Parkway, there were four freshly built supermarkets, three Italian restaurants, five burger joints, four bars-and-grills and two places with good bagels, all vying for domination of the Invernessian appetite. Twice the light went red to green to red again without letting me through. The longer I sat, the hungrier I got. I thought maybe I had time to hop out and grab a poppyseed bun. Alas, I made it through on the next green and chugged up the hill on an empty stomach, anticipating instead a fistful of catered cucumber rolls.

I was heading into the hills, into a place that by the geography of my childhood (which is the geography by which, for better or worse, I map things) was far beyond the edge of our city, a place I’d hiked in size four suede boots. Everything south of Black Rock Highway should have been covered by black rocks. It ought to have been inhabited by lizards and turtles and those strange bugs I remember mistaking for green sticks. Instead, my parents were here. The one comfort of Inverness was that it was bounded to the south by the Black Rock Mountains, which were steep enough to resist the yellow trucks and green ambitions to which their foothills had given way. That is, Inverness was, of necessity, the end of town. I am comforted by cities that end.

The parkway narrowed from six lanes to four to two, the landscaping along the chalk-white curbs growing lusher with each passing yard. I slowed to horse-and-buggy speed up the last stretch, where a right turn would lead you to an upscale over-55 development called Sea of Tranquility. The shiny black Buick of an HOA rent-a-cop was waiting there; its roachy presence got me to drop another 10 m.p.h. I now was not really driving at all, just rolling. Still, I thought I might be stopped, arrested, incarcerated, incinerated. I feel guilty in the presence of official vehicles.

Just past Tranquility, I turned left into Inverness, smiled nervously at the gate guard—I have always smiled nervously at gate guards—and told him my name.

“Is the coach expecting you?”

This guy had seen me a million times.

“I’m on the list.”

“Say your name again?”

“Tucker Axelrod.”

“No, your name, Sir.”

“I told you. Axelrod. Like the coach.”

“Sir. Please.”

I took a deep breath. I had an idea.

“Blum.” I said. “ Aaron Blum.”

“Oh yes, we have you on the list, Mr. Blum. Go right on in.”

Inverness, in case you never stopped by, was the sort of neighborhood that never calls itself a neighborhood. It was a “development”, a “community”, even a “club”, but never a “neighborhood”; the term was apparently far too middlebrow for the upper-middlebrows who lived there. All the same, its “theme” was nothing if not the All-American Neighborhood, something new for Zantrum’s sprawling suburbs, which had for decades been drowning themselves in a sea of tan stucco. At Inverness, the developers had, with specially stamped siding, blue and white all-weather paints, and other miraculous modern materials, created the look of colonial clapboard houses in each of six different one-to-three story elevations, some of which even had basements.

Here, in the arid Southwest, human nostalgia was asserting itself: People wanted to live as they imagined their grandparents had lived back east, or would have lived if they hadn’t been in cramped Cleveland apartments sewing and selling their way to a train ticket west. Inverness surrounded a golf course that had been carved out of the rolling hills on the far south end of the valley. Tall pines had been planted everywhere, and they were strung with white lights year-round. The overall effect, in the midst of a thousand square miles of boulder-covered basin and range, was of a New England fishing village in which it was always Christmastime. And in which golf was played.

I hadn’t made my peace with Inverness. Inverness had turned the foothills of my childhood into something else and left them without the possibility of ever becoming themselves again. Ten million years a desert ridge is carved and painted and baked and etched only to have a convoy of yellow earthmovers scrape it clear for tract homes and sandtraps. Once a barren hillside is made wrong, after all, it can’t be made right again; there’s no lush foliage to come back in a century’s time and cover the scars. I thought about these things every time I drove up the hill, but it felt wrong to question my parents’ move. I suppose that in raising me they’d earned the right not to hear my cranky objections.

My solution was to refuse to consider my parents Invernessians. True, they’d been among the first to move to Inverness when the homes went on the market a year ago. True, they’d told all their friends about Inverness, and all their friends had moved there, too. But my parents were not Invernessians. As far as I was concerned, they were in the development, but not of it. My parents were accidental Invernessians, a pair of people who had accidentally sold my boyhood home in the valley’s center and accidentally packed their things and accidentally moved. Someday the strangers who had bought my boyhood home would realize that it was all an accident, and would graciously move out, and my parents would return, and I could go back into the backyard and look at how tall the cypresses had grown. My parents were only in Inverness until the cosmos straightened things out and sent them back to the low-slung 1970 ranch house where they belonged.

– Greg Blake Miller

(Next: “Coach Ax’s Preseason Party” (TGWP 5).)

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