“Wherever you want to go,” the man in the sport jacket said. He had an athletic build, and the white shirt he was wearing looked like it was just pulled out of the packaging. Blinding white. No one in Bend dressed like that. D was dressed in his regular school clothes, joggers and a long-sleeved T-shirt. He towered over the man in the sport jacket.
“How about Ruby’s?” D said.
The man in the sport coat and the heavy-set coach to his left smiled. “Yeah, sure, but you can go higher end, if you want,” Coach said. “We’re trying to get you to come to our school. You can order the chateaubriand.”
D didn’t know what chateaubriand was, and he didn’t want to ask. But he knew enough and he hated the implication. It was as though some fancy dinner and the prospect of financial gain could just make him do whatever they wanted. “That’s just the way those big schools do it,” Robert told him. Robert and Karen, D’s adoptive parents, were not persuaded that D should even pursue an athletic career. Karen, especially was concerned that D needed an education. She cited statistics about the success rates of those who pursued big school or professional sports.
“We just don’t want you to think that’s all there is in life,” she said. “When your career in sports is over, you need to assimilate. Sports careers are not that long.” But when he started being scouted, she and Bob, along with the rest of the community in Bend, got caught up in the hype.
He was a phenom, as the press put it.
Coach and the man in the white suit climbed into a large black Cadillac Escalade. They seemed oblivious to how it stuck out in a town whose inhabitants drove Subarus. “Take the front,” Coach said. “I need to stretch out my legs, anyway. Too much traveling.”
Ruby’s was an unassuming local place. It was the sort of place that Robert and Karen took D when he got a good test grade. Sandwiches, wings, pizza and burgers. He had to hand it to them, Robert and Karen knew what he liked from day one, not like the other foster parents. Prior to Robert and Karen, D saw it all—the out-of-touch agency ladies and the leeches. The leeches were the ones who collected foster kids. Each kid was a new source of income. They piled them into the house and didn’t care what happened to them. And the other kids were insufferable. Some had been beaten up, and they were quick to beat up on others. D cowered away from them and tried to hide, until the day that Karen and Robert came to take him in.
Karen never had children and Robert was in sales. They went to church every week and had already fostered D’s other adopted brother, Sid, who was now a banker in Ohio. Robert signed D up for basketball. It was white man’s ball. By that, D understood that it meant just the basics. Robert and Karen lived in a huge house and had a half court outside. On Saturdays Robert and D shot layups. Robert told D that basketball and sports would build character. But D didn’t care at the time. He only played it because there was nothing else to do.
Ironically, Karen was the one who saw how much D took to it. She brought a flyer home about a travel clinic. She thought it’d be good for D to develop some skills. Besides, she’d pointed out, she and Robert could use the time that D was away for a little break. D was pissed at first. A break. They weren’t his real parents. D did practically everything for himself anyway. But it turned out Karen was right. D took to basketball naturally. When he started to pour himself into it, something magical happened. D grew. A lot. And the travel team played better basketball. They lined the players up and threw the basketball hard at their stomachs. Some of the boys got the wind knocked out and D found himself gasping for air, but it was a turning point. D knew it served a purpose. When D played other teams, he wasn’t afraid of getting hit or fouled. It sure beat getting a basketball launched at your solar plexus.
“You’re Demetrius, aren’t you?” the waitress had long, dark hair that was tied up in a high ponytail. She was pretty.
“Yes,” D said, before Coach cut in.
“Hon, we’re trying to keep it low-key, OK?” The man in the bright white shirt tucked some extra bills into her hand.
The waitress waved it away, “you got it,” she said. “Just wanted to tell you it’s a pleasure to serve The Phenom.”
Coach smiled, but it was not a real one. “Lots of phenoms out there, honey. Now can you get us a couple menus?”
Coach and the man in the bright white shirt perused the menu. D put his down.
“What looks good?” the man in the white shirt asked.
“I’ll have the double-decker burger, no fries,” D said. “Mind if I get two?”
“Whatever you want,” the man in the white shirt said.
“And the malted shake,” D added.
This was a little splurge. In season D didn’t like to drink shakes, but this was an occasion to celebrate. He led his high school team to a winning season and now he was being scouted by the big ten schools. The press then caught wind. When national sports reporters showed up at the house, D knew that things were changing. They wanted to talk to D. They tried to get pictures.
“You know we can’t offer you cash yet,” the man in the white shirt said, as he cut his burger in half and bit into part of it. Coach grabbed some fries from his plate. “Look here, son,” he said. “The money will come, but before it comes, you gotta show the world what you’re made of. I can help you get there. You come with me, and you’ll get court time, provided you are committed to putting in the time.” He paused. D smiled broadly. “I can put in the time,” he said.
Coach smiled back. “Then you can collect your shoe contracts and do your commercials.”
The man in the bright white shirt spoke next. “We brought along a couple things we thought you might like.” He pulled out a large duffel bag. “Just some college swag for our college boy,” Coach said. “You ever see these before?” He pulled out a pair of high tops. They were huge and light, but had some sort of stiff wedge above the sole.
“No,” D smiled.
“That’s cause no one has,” the man in the white shirt said. “Factory made for you when you join our team. Can’t wait to get you signed up.” He handed D the duffel bag. “Look through that when you get home,” the man in white said. “I’ll call you on Monday morning.”
When D got home from dinner, he expected Robert and Karen to beam. Instead, Karen was pale and looked at D through red-rimmed eyes. There was a woman sitting on the sofa.
“Demetrius, baby!” she held out her arms.
Karen looked sidelong at D. There was a rather long pause.
Robert spoke first. “Demetrius, this is your mother, Destiny Laximoore. She showed up at our door tonight.”
* * *
That had been three weeks ago. There were other schools after that. They all wanted to take D out to dinner. Some had given him gas cards, warmups. D wasn’t sure that cash equivalents were kosher under NCAA guidelines. At first, it had been fun to be treated like sports royalty, but D still found something unsettling about it. It was as though each duffel bag was a little piece of him that the colleges were buying. They wanted return on their investment. They really didn’t care what happened to D, D thought. They wanted to buy winning. Only Karen and Robert gave any thought to what was best for D, and then, well Destiny.
It was obvious that Karen didn’t like Destiny. She never said anything negative, but D could tell the way she looked at Robert when Destiny called, as though she wanted him to say that he didn’t need to tell D that Destiny had called. When D gave Destiny the gas cards he’d been given, Karen looked hard at Robert, who’d said nothing.
“Demetrius, I have always loved you, and I only need a little money so that I can get enough to get us an apartment together,” Destiny said. D took one look at Destiny and knew it was true. Destiny was skinny, like she could use a meal. She also needed to see a dentist. Years of neglect, thought D. The world is good to the Roberts and Karens, but the Destinys had to make it without any help.
“Mom, how’s the search going?” D asked one day. “I’m pretty close to picking North Carolina for school. We could move there together. Look what I got you.” D pulled out the pages that he had printed from his computer. He circled three apartments. He’d given Destiny money from his savings account, already. It would easily have covered a down payment on any of the apartments.
“Honey, I’m still looking,” Destiny said. “I gotta go now, catch you next week.”
D hated it when she said that. It meant that she might or might not show up the following week.
“Yeah,” he said, handing her a roll of cash. “Don’t forget to call me next week.”
But she did. And every time she did, D found himself taking out his anger at the court, slamming the ball through the hoop, lashing out at anyone who screwed up at practice.
Karen and Robert took notice.
“Hey, D,” Robert said one night. “What’s going on with your savings account? I thought you were saving up for a car—remember, I’ll match whatever you put down.”
“Yeah, my mom needed some money so she can get to her job,” D said.
“Hmm. D, maybe she needs to come up with some of that money on her own.”
Karen broke in. “Enough!” she said loudly. “Honest to God, I have had enough of all this. Why do we have to keep pretending? Demetrius, your mother doesn’t have a job. She’s sucking all the money off you because she sees you as one big paycheck. Where’s she been for the last fifteen years? Where was she when you spray painted the side of the school, huh? Did she get you out of that? No! That was us, Demetrius. Where was she when you were sick? Did she come to you then? How about when you couldn’t pass Algebra? She didn’t knock on our goddamn door then, did she?”
This was scary. Karen never swore. Her face was white and D could see a vein throbbing in her neck. Even her fingers were shaking. “Wake up, Demetrius. She’s using you.”
Robert looked bothered. “Karen—”
“No, I got it,” D’s own hands were shaking now. “You’re wrong. You hate her because she’s my real mom,” he heard himself say. “You wouldn’t have any of this, the fame, the attention, all that stuff you love if my real mom didn’t bring me into this world. Now you’re just jealous. Yeah? Well, you’re gonna find out the hard way. I’m outta here. I’m not your son anymore. I never really was.”
Robert looked bothered now. “Demetrius, we don’t mean that—”
But it was too late. Demetrius had grabbed his jacket and was out the door.
* * *
Three hours later, he had traced Destiny’s steps. It wasn’t difficult. She drove a beat-up gold duster that stuck out like a sore thumb in a town of middle-class people. A few questions at the convenience store, and D found himself watching his mom from behind a dumpster in a parking lot on the edge of town.
“Yeah, I got it,” he heard her say. She handed a man the roll of cash that D had given her. “Now you give me what you got. D didn’t see what he gave her, but he felt a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach. What was she doing? That was the money that was for the apartment. The feeling in the pit of his stomach began to rise. It was nausea. D swallowed back bile.
When the man left, D emerged from behind the dumpster. Destiny immediately turned toward the sound of a can falling from the dumpster.
“Demetrius, what are you doing here?” she called.
“What are you doing here?” D asked. “That money was supposed to be for our apartment, remember?”
Destiny looked hard at D.
D looked hard right back. “What’s your explanation? I mean, mom, why are you doing this?”
“Demetrius,” Destiny said. She paused. “I’ve, I’ve—” She gathered herself. “It’s for my job, like I said,” Destiny finally said. “I’m a nail tech. That man gets me my supplies for cheap. Too expensive to buy them at the store. I buy ‘em on the street.”
“Yeah? Where are they?” D asked. “Show me.”
“Actually, he delivers them for me,” Destiny said. “You know I can’t show them to you—cause he delivers them so I don’t have to carry them home. . . Then I do my nails. I’ve got some saved up, Demetrius. It’s gonna be you and me. I’ve got some saved up. We gonna live in that apartment—I just need one more thing, Demetrius. Just one more thing, and that’s the gel drying machine. Cost me about $500 more. Can you get that for me next week? Think you can get me $500 more by next week?”
D sighed. “Yeah, mom.” He walked slowly back to Robert and Karen’s.
* * *
Karen had been crying. Her face was red and her eyes were swollen. “Sorry, D. I didn’t mean it,” she was saying. “We love you and are just glad you’re back.”
D looked at Karen and Robert defiantly. “I’ll sleep here,” he said. “But I want to you to know that you’re wrong. You were wrong. My mom’s a nail tech, and she’s been saving up to live at college with me. Till then, I’ll crash here, but only till then.” D then felt the overwhelming urge to cry, to run into the arms of Karen and Robert and cry, but he didn’t know why. Instead, he spoke. “I’m signing. North Carolina,” he said. “Then I’m outta here.”
* * *
The man in the bright white shirt was back. “I just want you to know that you made the right decision,” he said. “I think you’ll find that we are a real family at NC. This is where you belong.”
Coach smiled and all his large white teeth showed. His large stomach shook with laughter. “So long as you perform, D!” he punched D in the shoulder.
Karen and Robert looked on. They smiled, proudly. “Well done, son,” Robert said.
They were standing outside, and D had signed four times on a clipboard balanced on the front of the Escalade.
“Wait, wait, we didn’t capture this moment,” Karen was smiling. “Someone take my phone!” She handed it to Sid, who had come home to celebrate D’s signing. “Sid, you get in the next one.”
Sid snapped a picture. D’s phone chimed.
There was the picture. Karen, smiling with joy. Robert, slapping D on the shoulder. The man in the white shirt looking victorious, and Coach looking as though he had just eaten the canary. Ironically, only D looked out of place. A big kid, in an even bigger NC warmup jacket, looking out from a bowed head, just like he had when he cowered behind the sofa at his first foster home.
“As long as I perform,” D thought. “as long as I perform.”
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