It’s almost dark when I walk in the back door, and Dad’s waiting for me in the kitchen.
“Come on.” He grabs his car keys off the counter. “We need to get you some dinner.”
What I really need is to chill and lose the headache those dumb Boys Club kids gave me, but Dad’s already setting the house alarm. I turn around and walk back out ahead of him to the garage.
As soon as we’re in his old Mustang, he decides to piss me off. “You have to wear that hoodie?”
I don’t know why Dad always has a problem with what I wear, but my head hurts too much to argue about it, especially with a guy in a camo hunting jacket. I push the hood back off my head and hope it’s enough to stop Dad’s bitching.
In fifteen minutes, we’re parked under a street light across from Martina’s Pizzeria. I take a second to check my look in the car window before I follow Dad inside, and right away, he spots Marti over at the bar. She owns the place, and she and Dad have a thing going on. I caught Dad a couple of times on the phone with her talking about single parent stuff, so I guess she and Dad kind of relate.
I don’t mind coming here, though. The pizza’s really good, and Marti’s OK. Her black hair is super thick, and it kind of sways behind her when she signals with her head to sit wherever we want. We take the booth at the front window where we can see the blinking Martina’s Pizza sign.
I check my phone, and Dad picks up the menu. “How’d it go at the Boys Club?”
He knows exactly how it went at the Boys Club. It was his big idea that I help out. “If you’re going to play basketball, at least do something constructive with it.”
That’s what Dad said. “Something constructive. . .”
I guess he still thinks using my skill to put the ball in the hoop is some kind of perversion. Maybe the headache pounding through my brain is punishment for my 12.8 points a game.
The server walks over and Dad orders. “A large pepperoni, peppers on one half. Let me have a beer. You want a Lemonade, DJ?”
“How ‘bout a peach ice tea.”
“Sweet tea’s good.”
“You sure? I thought . . .”
I slump down a little in the booth. “Could I just get a sweet tea?”
I know the lady taking the order is going to make a face or give one of those stupid smiles people make when they know you’re embarrassed, and I cut my eyes to look out the window.
When I was a little kid, I liked to watch out this same window. I thought it was really cool the way the Martina’s sign lit up the people on the sidewalk, like they were flashing on and off, and the thumping against my skull starts to fade.
While I’m still looking out, Dad starts in again and so does the thumping. “I been thinking about your classes for next fall, you know, your electives.”
I mean seriously, how is this so urgent we have to get into it now?
“Have you thought about getting back in band? You were a pretty good drummer in middle school.”
I wasn’t pretty good. I was first chair. I was friends with everyone and I liked the band director, too, but I wanted to play basketball in eighth grade. Dad made this huge nightly issue about how basketball “complicated things” with band, so I quit. Things never stopped being complicated, though, and sometimes I wish I hadn’t.
I still hang out and play regular with some talented guys, so I’ve stayed sharp with my sticks. A couple of girls have been on me about getting back in band, too, and their good looks pull on me pretty hard. Plus, there’s a JV basketball player that plays tuba.
But the thing is, I have the next two years pretty much planned out. “Maybe.”
“Maybe.” Dad unwraps his silverware from inside the cloth napkin and holds it while he looks at me. “So?”
“So, I was thinking weight training would help me.”
“How’s that going to help?’”
I should have known this little talk would be about how basketball complicated things again. I should have told Dad I’d think about it and leave it there, but I was into it now.
“You know, it’ll help like with my vertical and stuff.”
Dad clinks his silverware on the table. “Vertical and stuff.”
“You know, jumping and . . .”
“No, I get it. I just thought you liked band.”
“Well, what about getting back in?”
The server brings our drinks over. I take a couple gulps of my tea and hope the conversation dies, but Dad won’t let it. “So, whatcha think?”
I think it’s pretty simple, so I try laying it out. “I can’t take band if I take weight training.”
Dad clacks his beer glass on the table. “So that’s what I’m saying. Band makes more sense.”
I clack my tea glass on the table. “Could you just listen a sec . . .?”
“Yea sure, but I think you should forget weight training.”
Dad may not be listening, but I notice the old man at the nearest table adjusting his hearing aid. Dad must notice, too, because he drops his voice. “We can get you some weights and you can lift in the basement.”
I catch a few people looking over at us, and I just want to end this whole thing. “I keep my drum kit in the basement, OK? So I can . . .”
Dad’s elbow bops the edge of the table, and the table candle hops and flickers. “So you can play drums in the band, too.”
He rubs his funny bone like it’s somehow my fault he bopped it, and now the whole restaurant turns to look. Dad leans in, and his voice feels like sandpaper on my ear drums. “What I’m saying is, get back in band since you like to play drums so much.”
Now I’m pissed again, and I finally give Dad some payback. “In band we call it playing percussion, OK? So at least call it the right thing if you’re going to make a big deal about it.”
Dad’s hand lands on his fork. It pops in the air and plings on the wood floor. I look away to hide my face and see Marti’s reflection in the window.
“Hey guys.” She had walked over with the pizza. “Basketball again, huh?”
“Sorry.” Dad bends over and picks up his fork, then slides the candle back. “I didn’t mean for us to half wreck the place. We just were talking about school. DJ’s hung up on weight training now.”
I know my face is red, but Marti acts like she can’t see it. Instead, her eyes dance at mine. “Yea? That was my favorite class.”
Dad laughs, and that pisses me off even more. I mean seriously, he acts so into Marti it’s sometimes hard to get my food down.
He takes the pizza and sits it on the table. Then he tilts his head toward a mini-Marti clearing a booth. “How’s that soccer? Karissa still loving it?”
Marti picks up my tea glass to refill. “Oh, yea. She’s the next Carly Lloyd if you ask her.”
I don’t care about soccer, but even though Karissa’s a year behind me in ninth grade, she still might be the best-looking thing at school. I adjust push my hair back and take a look over to see if she had been watching the show Dad put on. She straightens up from the table and her eyes get bright. Then she gives me a little smile and kind of a wave, and I decide, absolutely, she’s definitely the best-looking thing at school.
Before I can look back, Marti catches us and ignites her own nuclear-powered smile. “Slide over.”
Even though Dad’s being a jerk, I still don’t want Marti cutting in on dinner. I can count on her being nice to me and all, but it’s not like she’s my mom.
Marti ignores my stare out the window and sits close to Dad. “Karissa was eight when she begged me to let her play. It’s a miracle she didn’t give it up after the first season.”
Dad pulls loose a couple slices. “You told me about that. You gotta hear this, DJ.”
He lays a slice on my plate. “Go ahead, Marti.”
Marti leans forward on her elbows, and I can see the white all around her huge brown eyes. “Since I played a little soccer in junior high, they made me coach the team. That first practice was straight out of Hell. All the balls ended up in the creek or in the parking lot, and all I did was scream and give myself a headache. Of course, all the moms wanted to know why I was screaming at their little girl. What did they want me to say, ‘Your girl’s an idiot?’”
Marti hands my glass to a server, then goes ahead and tells some more stories. They’re all pretty funny. Dad laughs and snorts at all of them, and I almost need a barf bag. All the stories turn out to be pretty much like what I put up with at the Boys Club, too, and even though Dad’s acting like a dork, my headache rolls away.
“Karissa’s turning out to be pretty fair. All-County already. She could be all-region next year.”
The bartender waves, and Marti holds up her hand. “I suppose once I figured out the girls just wanted someone to care about them a little bit, the rest was easy.”
I turn to look out the window. On the sidewalk, a man and a little boy flash on and off from Marti’s blinking sign, and I remember back when I was little.
Dad has always gone to the Boys Club to help with homework and stuff, and I was about five when he started taking me along. It was noisy, and I didn’t like going over there. They had the same old gym and concrete floor, and all the kids ever did was play basketball. The place was all broken down and the baskets messed up, but that wasn’t a big deal. I didn’t really care about basketball, anyway. Those kids, though, they were into it.
Dad treated all those little kids like they were so cool, like he really liked them, and I guess that’s why I started playing basketball. I wanted to show dad I was cool, too, so he would care about me the way he cared about them.
The more Dad helped those kids, the more I played basketball. It made sense. That’s what those kids were doing. They played basketball all the time, and dad treated them all great. But little kid logic isn’t all that good when you’re trying to figure out grownups, especially when one of the grownups is your dad.
I guess grown up logic can be pretty weak, too, especially when dads are trying to figure out their own kids.
The server sits my tea glass on the table. Marti slides it over to me, then slides out of the booth. I sit up and try to catch her eye, then try to think of something to make her stay, but the bartender waves again and she turns to go. “Call me.”
Dad pushes another slice on his plate. “I will.”
“Who’s talking to you?” Then she looks over her shoulder and throws me a wink.
Marti takes two more steps before I grab my tea glass. “Hey Marti.”
She turns and re-ignites her nuclear smile. “Yea?”
“I mean, excuse me, but could I maybe get a lemonade instead?”
“Sure. Is the sweet tea bad?”
I lift a finger to Dad, then I stand up and carry the glass over to her. “No. Didn’t know what I wanted, I guess.”
Marti looks up at me, and I feel kind of tall. I walk with her over to the bar. “Can I get an order of meatballs, too? It’ll be ok with Dad.”
From the author: “While raising my own children, I also taught and nurtured other children. Boys Club is inspired by those interwoven and experiences. I taught music for over thirty years in Georgia schools while raising two boys with their mom – my wife.
“While we enjoy retirement, I volunteer and perform original kid songs in libraries and schools. My writing successes include the short story “Eastside Player” (YA online journal Youth Imagination, Dec. 2018), “The Rattler” (2015 SCBWI Southern Breeze picture book text contest winner), “Jazz Man” (2016 finalist for SCBWI Southern Breeze picture book text contest), “River Park Games” (featured YA story Summer/Fall 2016 online journal Lunch Ticket,) and sports blogging and leadership for DawnoftheDawg.com and SouthboundandDown.com.
“Featured on ESPN Gameday on October 27, 2018, Dreaming of the Redcoat Band is my self-published picture book telling of a child’s dream to march in Sanford Stadium.”