The Shark and the Remora
There are certain entities in life that would not do well alone. Apples need trees, rivers need riverbanks, Montana needed Rice, and Stockton needed Malone. Joey needed Frank. Or was it that Frank needed Joey? I guess we’ll find out.
“We’ve got new neighbors, Frank. It’s a young woman and her ten year old son. She’s very nice. I didn’t meet the boy. He’s in school. Her name is Susan Clark, and her boy’s name is Joey.”
“Just the two of them?”
“Yes. She’s from here, but she married a guy from South Carolina. They just got divorced. I guess he wasn’t much of a father, so she moved back here with the boy.”
“And the dad was ok with that?”
“He had to work, Joey. He really wanted to be here.”
Translation: The banquet after the big golf tournament would be more fun than a five year old’s birthday party. There would also probably be a lot of lonely women golfers there who would enjoy the attention of the handsome assistant club pro.
One good blow and Joey nailed it- all candles extinguished, but as an indicator of unfair events to follow, he didn’t get his wish.**
Frank was a huge man, shoulders broadened and arms thickened by years of hauling and pouring cement, skin leathered by the sun, and massive hands the texture of sandpaper. Joey was looking up at an imposing figure.
“Nice to meet you, sir.”
“Listen, if we’re going to be neighbors, why don’t you call me Frank?”
Joey seemed to resist.
“Well ok, since I’m so much older, how about Mr. Frank?”
There’s love at first sight, and then sometimes there’s friends at first sight. Frank’s size was offset by his pleasant tone. Joey smiled broadly.
“Ok, Mr. Frank.”
Frank and Beth sat on their backyard patio that night. Both were thinking the same thing. Joey looked just like the little boy they never had.
**”But what about Dad? Are we just going to leave him here?”
Some things in life are hard to understand. Joey hadn’t seen his Dad for almost two years- no cards, no presents on his birthday or at Christmas, not even a phone call. Susan didn’t think moving away would bother Joey so much, but it did. The empty feeling can’t be explained, but it’s there, as real as a punch in the gut.**
Frank had seen the basketball hoop on the garage next door many times, but now it appeared in a new light- someone was using it. At first he only smiled at Joey’s clumsy efforts at trying to get the ball to go where it was supposed to go, but then he frowned at the sorry condition of the backboard and hoop. Frank realized that for the first time since he retired he could do something constructive, and it could be a rare double dip. Frank not only possessed some basic carpentry skills, but he had been the star of his high school basketball team.
**Kids can be cruel.
“Holy crap, Joey! You throw like a little girl! Didn’t your Dad ever teach you anything?”
When Susan pulled into her driveway, she was startled to Frank up on a step ladder next to her garage.
“What are you doing, Frank?”
‘Oh, I had some time so I thought I’d straighten out the backboard. It needs a new hoop. I think I’ve got one in the garage.” (He made that up.)
“Frank! You don’t have to do that.”
“Try and stop me.”
When Joey got home from school, the backboard had been straightened, the hoop had been replaced, and a flashy red, white and blue net had been hung. Frank was just finishing up with a new coat of paint on the backboard.
“Mr. Frank! Thank you so much! It looks awesome!”
“We’re going to give it a day to dry. Then tomorrow we start working on your game.”
“Practice. I used to play a little hoops. I think I can help you with a few things.”
“You’re going to play basketball with me?”
“Coach, Joey, coach. I think I’m too old to play.”
**Joey was excited to get a new baseball glove for his birthday.
“Dad, can we play catch now?”
“Not now Joey. Maybe tomorrow.”
“I’ll play catch with you, Joey.”
On the way out the door, Joey glanced back at his father who was reading the paper, beer can in hand.**
“Here you go, Joey.”
Joey was in a near trance as he held his brand new basketball.
“Mr. Frank. Thank you. I love it.”
“Ok, new basketball, new hoop, no excuses. Let’s get to work.”
They made a nice team- a good teacher and a good student. And Frank made it all fun. When they worked on ball handling, Joey was Oscar Robinson; shooting-Steph Curry; defense-Bill Russell; rebounding- Dennis Rodman. But the most important thing he imparted to Joey was the main ingredient, the cement that held it all together-confidence.
**”That was too high for me to catch!”
“That wasn’t too high! I played football so I know. You just suck at catching. I’m wasting my time.”
Joey’s Dad just shook his head and went into the house. Joey walked over to the football, kicked it hard, and wiped away a tear.**
“Beth, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your husband spending so much time with my son. Joey just loves it.”
“Not as much as Frank does.”
Susan and Beth would make a snack and something to drink so their boys would have a little treat after their basketball practice, or playing catch with a baseball, or tossing a football around. Then the four of them would sit around and discuss the topics of the day.
“You’ve never been fishing, Joey?”
“Well, we’re just going to have to take care of that. Susan, I need to take Joey with me for an hour or so.”
“Sure, where are you going?”
“The bait shop. This kid needs some fishing gear.”
“Oh, Frank, you don’t have to do that.”
“Try and stop me.”
**“Dad, Billy says he caught a huge bass. Can we go fishing sometime?”
“What for? Fishing is stupid.”**
“Ok, so you hold your thumb like so, bring the rod back slowly, and throw your arm forward just like you’re throwing a baseball. And snap your wrist at the end…Good…nice and smooth…that’s it…you’re getting the hang of it…now toss your bobber toward shore…but not too hard…you don’t want to get your line caught in the branches.”
Frank smiled, laughed and shook his head.
“Joey, we’re fishing. That means we’re trying to catch fish, not squirrels.”
“Aw, Mr. Frank.”
Frank and Beth returned home from Church one Sunday morning to see Joey sweeping off their patio. He had already done the front porch and the sidewalks.
“Joey! What are doing? You don’t have to do that.”
“Try and stop me, Mr. Frank.”
Joey loved to help out, sometimes working along side Frank, and sometimes on his own- sweeping, raking, washing cars.
**”Why don’t you ask Joey to help you?”
“I can do it faster myself. He’d just be in the way.”**
November. Most kids are thinking about Thanksgiving and Christmas. Joey was thinking about basketball…and more basketball. That’s pretty much where Frank’s head was at too.
Frank sometimes picked Joey up after practice. He would arrive a little early so he could catch a little of the customary scrimmage at the end of every practice.
“Your boy is doing great, Frank. I’ve never had a kid who worked so hard.”
The term “your boy” startled Frank, but it had a nice ring to it.
“Mr. Frank! Did you see my three pointer at the end of practice?!”
“ Three Pointer? Huh, I must have been checking my watch or something.”
The wry smile suggested otherwise.
“”Aw, Mr. Frank.”
**”Mom, do you think Dad will be at our Christmas play tonight? I want him to see my cool Joseph costume.”
There were so many things Susan wanted to say about the man who didn’t take seriously, or even understand, or even care, about his role as a father, but she never did. Joey’s feelings always trumped hers.
“I’m sure he will try, Joey."**
“Joey is so nervous about his first game tomorrow night, Beth.”
“Not as nervous as Frank, Susan.”
During warmups, Joey would catch Frank’s eye and smile. Those two eyes on him made Joey feel like he was Michael Jordan. Mr. Frank’s whole attention, focus, concern, would be on him. That would be a good feeling for any ten year old boy. It was a spectacular feeling for Joey.
**”But Joey’s coming up to bat soon.”
“I’ve got to check things out at the club. He can me tell about it tonight. It’s only T-ball. He’s not going to get a hit anyway.”
Joey took a nice level swing, not too hard, but firm, just like his mother taught him, and smacked the ball over the shortstop’s head. He jumped high into the air, glanced at the stands and saw his mother sitting there alone. Despite the pleas of his coach to run to first base, Joey dropped his head and dragged the bat back to the bench.**
“Good game, Joey. You guys did a good job.”
“But we lost, Mr. Frank.”
“I know, it’s more fun to win, but that’s not what is really important. You played hard, and you did your best. That’s what really matters. Trust me. Besides, you get ice cream either way.”
“Thanks, Mr. Frank. But do you know what the most important thing really was?”
“What’s that, Joey?”
“You were here, Mr. Frank. You came to my game.”
**Mom, Ben’s parents are divorced, and he stills sees his Dad all the time. Why doesn’t Dad ever see me? Doesn’t he like me?”
As many times as Joey asked, Susan couldn’t come with an answer that would make her or Joey feel any better.**
Susan was touched by Frank’s presence at the game. She saw a little something seeping into that empty spot Joey had suffered with for so long.
“Joey was so happy that you were here. I hope you can make it to more games.”
“Try and stop me.”
“Mr. Frank, do you know what ‘symbiotic’ is?”
“Not offhand, Joey.”
“Well, we learned about it in school today. It’s when two things need each other, you know, help each other out. Like a shark and a remora. Do you know what a remora is?”
“Stumped me again, Joey.”
“Well, it’s a little fish that attaches itself to a big shark. It helps the shark by eating parasites and other bad stuff off of the shark. And the remora is helped because the shark keeps predators away and leaves scraps of food for the remora to eat. They help each other. I guess they kind of need each other.”
“And I thought that’s like you and me, Mr. Frank. We help each other. You help me, and I help you. You’re big, like the shark, and I’m small, like the remora. We’ve got one of those symbiotic relationships going, Mr. Frank.”
“Symbiotic? I like that. I guess we do. I’m going to call you ‘Remora’ from now on.”
“Aw, Mr. Frank.”
**“Can you help us with his Pinewood Derby car?”
“I don’t know why you put him in Cub Scouts anyway. It’s not my problem.”**
There are great moments in sports, and then some not so great. With St. Bruno’s down two with seconds remaining, Joey was fouled in the act of shooting. He made the first free throw, but missed the second. Game over. Joey was totally demoralized.
“I’m so upset that I missed that second free throw, Mr. Frank.”
“Don’t worry, Joey. It’s never about the last shot you took. It’s about the next one.”
“Frank, St. Bruno’s big end of the year banquet is coming up. They hand out awards for scholastic achievement, attendance, a bunch of stuff. And they have sports awards too. Joey thinks he has a chance for most valuable player. It’s for students, parents, grandparents, but I know he’d love for you and Beth to be there. Do you think you could make it?”
“Try and stop me.”
**“The annual Father-Son breakfast is right after the eight o’clock Mass this Sunday. Joey really wants to go. All his friends will be there.”
“Sunday? Are you serious? Weekends are our busiest days. You know that.”
Translation: He was scheduled to give a golf lesson to Jenny Martens that morning, the thirty-something hottie, unhappy in her marriage and likely looking for a little excitement in her life.**
“Susan, I need to borrow Joey for a couple of hours.”
“What for, Frank?”
Frank and Joey were a stunning pair as they strode into the festively decorated St. Bruno’s gym that night- white shirts, sport coats and ties. Never in the history of smiles has there ever been a smile as big and bright as Joey’s. A close runner-up was Frank’s.
Joey, Susan, Frank and Beth awaited the big moment- the presentation of the 5th Grade Boy’s Basketball Most Valuable Player Award. Coach Stevens took to the stage holding the shiny trophy, small in size but big in purpose.
Coach Stevens complimented all his players for their hard work and thanked them for giving him a great season. He then held the trophy for all to see.
“In all my years of coaching, I’ve never had a kid who worked so hard and improved so much. This year’s Most Valuable Player award goes to…Joey Clark.”
The audience applauded, Joey walked to the stage, Susan bolted to the front of the gym to take pictures, and Frank beamed with pride. Coach Stevens handed the trophy to Joey who startled him with an unusual request.
“Coach, can I say something?”
“Of course, Joey.”
This piqued the curiosity of Frank, and sent Susan into a near panic.
“ I love this award. Thank you, but I don’t know if I really deserve it. You see, I’m just a little remora…”
This puzzled the audience and sent Frank from “curious” to “alarmed”.
“I couldn’t have gotten this without my shark. He deserves this as much as I do. So, when I get back to my table, I’m going to give this to my friend, my shark, Mr. Frank.”
Frank was in shock as Joey walked back to their able.
“Here, Mr. Frank, I want you to have this.”
As Frank held onto both Joey and the trophy, there was no effort to hold back tears. Susan, Beth, Joey, and yes, even Frank cried openly.
The coach started it, tepid, polite, golf match-like clapping. Others joined in. Soon the entire gym was rocking with thunderous applause as the entire crowd stood to acknowledge the selfless act and the obvious love between a little boy and a big old man.
There have been a number of unforgettable moments in the history of events held to recognize the accomplishments of sports figures- John Cappelletti giving his Heisman Trophy to his little brother; Lou Gehrig proclaiming himself to be “the luckiest man on the face of earth;” the “bell lap” for Steve Prefontaine tucked into the back of a hearse as it circled the track at the University of Oregon. But at this little school, in this small town, nothing can match the memory of Joey handing his trophy to Mr. Frank.
Joey played basketball in high school. Frank never missed a game, home or away. Joey played basketball in college. Frank never missed a game, home or away. Joey graduated with a degree in English and landed a position in his hometown high school. With his background, and series of retirements and transfers, he immediately became the head basketball coach. Frank was his volunteer assistant. Together again.
One afternoon, in their fifth season, Frank didn’t show up for practice. Joey knew something bad must have happened. He cut practice short, and after a series of panicked phone calls, he got ahold of his mother.
“We’re at the hospital, Joey. Beth says he just crumpled to the floor in pain. Please get here as soon as you can.”
The news was as bad as it gets- late stage, terminal cancer. Joey wiped away a tear the first time he saw Frank.
“Don’t cry, Joey. I guess I’ll just be moving on. Remember, it’s not the last shot you take, it’s the next one. I’ll sure miss you though.”
"And I'll miss you, Mr. Frank."
It dragged on for a couple of months, the pain, the struggle, the tears. Joey was with Frank every night, the remora attached to the shark. One night, near the end, Joey sat in the hospital room holding Frank’s hand. He noticed Frank looking at the crucifix on the wall.
“Mr. Frank, I want to believe, I want to believe in heaven. Do you believe, Mr. Frank, really believe?”
Frank nodded his head.
Joey reverted back to the emotions of a ten year old.
“Can you promise me I will see you again?”
Another slight nod of the head.
“You’re sure we will be together again?”
This time Frank answered in a barley audible whisper.
“Try and stop me.”
Beth, Susan, and Joey sat together on a sofa as mourners filled the room. Hundreds passed by to pay their final respects to Frank, lying in a casket, at peace, with a small trophy tucked under his arm.