Alexander R. Turkington. “The Turk.” I remember him.
When I was a middle school boy, saying the name––those two simple syllables––was enough to evoke awe in our Southern neighborhood. The town was home to the University of Kentucky, and a hunger for national titles manifested itself in the prospect of cultivating a local high school player who would be sent into the powerful, lucrative machine of college basketball. In addition, ours and surrounding counties contained the feeder schools responsible for producing lifelong fans, devotees, and other “rah”-makers for the University. As the Turk’s notoriety rose (primarily through being the only high school sophomore ever placed on its varsity team), I sensed a fulfillment of these collective, unwritten aspirations.
I saw him play a handful of times, thus witness to his effect on spectators at the high school games. Every shot he scored and every pass he intercepted had the dualistic quality of being simultaneously prescriptive and free. Freedom through control––he lived out that paradox before gymnasiums of adoring fans. Game after game, his way of building tension into certain plays––the shot clocks he would run down by dribbling at the opposite end of the court until the last possible seconds, sights focused squarely on the hoop’s rim, fifty feet away––worked a kind of magic that, on one hand had the youthful spontaneity one would expect, and on the other a dramatic rendering of a strategic calculation. In certain moments, I was left wondering if such a calculation was made for its predictable utility of depriving the rival team of scoring or for an intentioned effect on the crowd.
Yet, despite overwhelming achievement and adoration received in the short span of one season (and sustained for years thereafter), he maintained a quiet confidence that could only have involved a conscientious effort to restrain the potential for narcissism that our basketball-loving community enabled. Even after scoring game-winning shots, his passivity as the object of their eye made him appear a cut above just about everyone else who’d played on the dogwood of our high school’s court. Never was there a celebratory dance, a fist pump, a shout of glee, or an embrace of his teammates. Was that blank-slated face simply a display of humility? A disregard of others’ fascination? Did the tightly-restrained façade last until, post-game, he’d made it to his car, his home’s entryway, his family room? Or would he merely arrive through the back porch, walk across the living room, and latch his bedroom door for solitary celebration? What form, then, would that celebration take?
I knew him through Nicholas Clay Turkington, my best childhood friend and younger brother of the rising athletic star. Though I remember eating around the Turkington dinner table, throwing a football in their backyard, even meeting the family at the public pool each week in the summer before my sixth-grade year, the Turk always seemed somewhat distant, unwilling to associate himself with the elementary activities of his younger brother. Perhaps because of the enigmatic quality that emanates from a young man consciously choosing to set himself apart, I always found myself drawn to the Turk, especially after the pool opening on Memorial Day of ’01.
Three metallic, quickly successioned shrieks of the lifeguard’s whistle indicated fifteen minutes reserved for swimmers above age thirteen. I’d hoisted myself out and ran along the walkway, dodging youngsters escorted by their parents to the bathrooms. Though I placed my belongings underneath the crown of a tall tree, its shade had migrated just enough that I found my towel bright and warm, insulated by the broad clumps of bluegrass that gave our state its nickname. It was from that vantage point, adjacent to the deep end, the only end, where diving was permitted, that I recognized a figure climbing the last steps of the divingboard ladder. Once atop, he ruffled his half-wet hair, shaking it out and re-fixing it into an elegant rightward swoop. He must have been fifteen or sixteen at the time and, unlike any other male teenager swimming that day, donned a deep red swimsuit that showed every inch of skin from knees to pelvis. I watched as he inserted the tip of his thumb into the top half of the piece’s waistband, ran the thumb back and forth a few times against his rightside hip, and finally slid both opened hands against the base of his torso to clasp the dark string that served to keep everything in place.
Looking back on that moment as he pulled each end, tightening and re-tying, I remember sensing others who had noted the sole diver’s steps toward the springboard’s edge. In a way, the entire space was the perfect amphitheater for a burgeoning performer––so much so, in fact, that had he looked up from the board and proclaimed the lines, “For in that sleep of death what dreams may come/When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,/ Must give us pause…,” the reception would have been no different from that at the Globe: a shifting forward rather than a passive slouch, an engagement with the slow unraveling of drama being played out before us. Was there anyone without a doubt that the Turk’s every move was methodically timed to occur at this very moment for our very eyes? Did he, himself, sense this glorification from his spectators, and how much did that potential sanctification help to render his show evermore decadent, yet passably authentic?
With each bounce toward the board’s edge, with each constriction of an Apollonian core, I firmed my eyes in anticipation for the inevitable leap and plunge. Whether we’d paid to see an Olympian swan dive, a seamless theatrical performance, or simply access to a bath of cool water on an unseasonably humid day, all of us certainly received our money’s worth. With the Turk’s controlled splash came the only appropriate action at the audience’s disposal in that particular staging: a collective exhale.
Nick never noticed his best friend’s wandering glances toward the elder Turkington boy, as I managed to stifle my natural enrapture. The pool scene, for instance, was disguised through its timing. While my fixation on that tall, confident diver had seemed to last several minutes, I always was aware those steps up the ladder, tug at the suit, half-jumps-half-steps to the board’s edge, and subsequent dive had lasted a mere five to six seconds. As he gained popularity in sporting circles and as his abilities were utilized liberally by the high school ball coach, my sight was diffused by the constant multiplying of fellow watchers. The ability to be implicated as his sole visual eavesdropper waned with each passing month, to the point that I could use Nick to address my curiosities around certain trivial-yet-intimate details of the Turk’s home life, the habits and customs of his private world.
“Is he usually there when you get home from school? What does he do when he gets home? Do you eat together in the mornings? Does he spend time in his room, alone, with the door shut?”
“He’s usually not home until 7:30 or 8,” Nick said. “He eats leftovers that Mom leaves on the stove. Standing at the counter. Doesn’t even sit down to the table.”
“And then? Do you talk to him?”
“And then he goes to his room. Sometimes I hear the shower running, but he stays in his corner of the house.”
We’d have these little conversations on the school bus, with me trying to eke out as much information as I could in the last minutes of the ride. Each day, I gained at least one new ounce of something about the Turk, and that compiling of knowledge only led to a craving for more of the very same. My desire begat desire as those daily bits of self-defined currency aggregated into a kind of essence of a person––a projected fantasy that he, despite a curated collection of mannerisms that served to aid that inward struggle of keeping ostentatious displays of self at bay, had no control over.
There was a night a summer later that I received an invitation to the Turkingtons’ for a movie night with Nick and Joseph Stoddard, another school friend. That type of summer evening was quite common: food and movies in the basement before filing up a floor to Nick’s bedroom. There, Nick would lay out extra blankets or a sleeping bag on his floor for me and others, if they were able to join. Once Nick was in his bed, we’d chat and laugh in the dark until the rate of conversing waned and each found himself drifting off in tandem.
Their basement was U-shaped and multistoried. To the bottom-left of the staircase was the Turk’s bedroom––a space I avoided, if not envisioned as a type of hot stovetop to my desiring. With one touch, all the pent-up energy around the high school junior would be cinched; all the excitement of the fantasy-in-perpetuum would not only be moot, but the entire endeavor irrelevant, wasted. (Part of my self-regulation, however, was the awareness of how easy it would have been to peer around that Bluebeardian door, how discreet and effortless it would be to violate not only my own fantasy-preserving rule but the very pressures of order and normalcy. I was, after all, a guest in someone else’s home.) Directly in front of the bottom step was a bathroom and, to the right, an open floorplan that continued around past the underside of the stairwell. It was in that corner beneath and beyond the top of the steps that, at the conclusion of the particular night’s movie, Nick and Joey noticed their friend soundlessly asleep. In fact, I appeared to be sleeping so deeply that the two chose not to wake me. They simply put another cover over me, turned off the television, and left the basement darkened and quiet.
I did not hear the Turk come in. I awoke to the abrupt shut-off of his shower, not thirty feet from where I laid. With my eyes still closed, I sensed the opening of the bathroom door, light streaming around the corner. He walked the four steps to his open bedroom, turned on that light, walked back to the bathroom to shut off its vanity bulbs, then entered his room without closing the door. If he arrived home long after my friends retired upstairs, he’d no way of knowing I was here, or did he? What time was it? Would he go immediately to bed? Ten minutes went by, twenty minutes, light still on but no audible sounds. I carefully lifted the top edge of blankets and folded them across the midline of my body as I sat up without a noise. I swept my feet down to the carpeted floor and, because there was just enough light, was able to get the bearings that would ready my balance to stand.
A sound. A low sigh and exhale from his room was enough to send me back under the covers, blankets tossed above my head, eyes shut, my breath suddenly increasing the temperature underneath as I waited for anything more. The image of him I kept coming back to was of the long-torsoed teenager dripping with pool water, how he must have felt the interested stares on him that day. How, instead of shrinking away, covering up, or collapsing his shoulders in on one another, he had broadened the moment he began his exalted strut from side wing to center stage. The sure-footed climb up to the protruded fiberglass plank. The one-handed hair ruffling that allowed our eyes, with those pearled droplets, to cascade down the length of his tanned body. The comfort required to touch oneself––to enjoy touching oneself––in the presence of others. That ever-so-slight lifting of waistline fabric with the hands that would stretch around basketballs, dunk after dunk. The hands that were pleasuring us through their self-aggrandizing touch. The touch he had cultivated through repetitive gesture, through rote choreography. He chose to perform, the springboard his stage, the lifeguards and families his audience, those motions of dominance simply a character study. What if he’d visited the pool weeks before that Memorial Day opening to remind himself of its layout, had even sketched a rough diagram of the entire space to envision the most effective show possible? What if in the very room I had been sleeping outside of, he rehearsed each movement using a set of double mirrors taken from a guest bedroom on the home’s groundlevel floor? His bed the springboard, a pair of underwear his costume, he practiced multiple versions of the scene, eventually reaching a point when he was able to eradicate any self-conscious glances toward the mirrors on opposing walls. What if for the dive itself, he’d check the high school’s pool door after basketball practice each day, allowing himself access to the indoor space if the door was unlocked? Until the lights were timed to shut off, anyone able to peer into those high windows would have seen a painstaking process that began with flop after flop and, weeks later, ended with a minute, symmetrical splash. The trick was in the slight arc forward––chin tucked to sternum, a rounding of the upper back, a tossing of the center of the body outwards, followed by the unraveling and lengthening of the legs, ankles, and toes. Before he learned to trust the natural arc that came with thrusting his entire weight into an inverted position, it had felt like an uncontrolled somersault. (Two weeks in, perhaps he had even progressed from landing flat on his stomach, arms splayed above his head, to feeling the water’s initial impact on his back––he’d done a full flip.) The next week, he would have eradicated the front flip and worked toward converting his body into a well-defined line that would drop into the pool with the precision of an archer meeting his target. He memorized the height required that would allow time to assume such a line, some nights spending his whole session bouncing as high as possible on the end of the board. Five weeks in, the cool flush during his dive’s downward glide reached the level of smooth, seamless sensation that indicated a mastery of his self-training. What if, one week before opening day, he went back to the public pool to photograph the Rules and Procedures that city officials posted annually on the front doors? It would have refreshed his memory of what to expect, particularly the topmost section that outlined: one whistleblow, attention and warning; two blows, individual suspension from pool activity; three blows, all under age thirteen were to vacate for fifteen minutes. From this, he would know to wait for those three shrieks set to occur on the hour. He would have looked forward to that opening date, arriving before the doors even opened. Wearing a long pair of athletic shorts over his suit, a University of Kentucky t-shirt, and a bi-colored beach towel across his shoulders, he fit right in with the crowd and was able to stake out a position that, according to his studied diagram, was in direct sight of a path to the diving board. The wait for the top of the hour exhilarated him and, instead of performance anxiety, he experienced a performance high while observing the pairs of eyes that would be directed toward him. There was no individual he sought to impress, but the thought of that collective honing on a single point provided a drive to action. What better way to demonstrate the naiveté of a crowd than to enable––no, compel––them to funnel their attention, their fixation, their covetous stares on a prize that gave them what they already desired. What if the Turk engineered and manipulated the entire scene using the most natural of instruments: body and the lust of others? What if he manufactured for them the first of many somethings to talk about, something to say, “Some kid today put on quite a show. Wonder whose boy he is. Was all by himself at the pool,” then to say, “That boy’s the fifteen-year-old who just made the Lafayette team. You heard of somebody so young ever being on that court?” then to say, “He’s got to be the greatest ball player ever come through this town. I know him. See him walking to school every day. Good student, awful handsome,” then to say, “Star of the high school team. Star of the town,” then to say, “Was lucky to have known him. Ain’t no one in this county been like him since,” and, “Watched him play his first UK game,” then to say, “He became...,” then to settle on, “The Turk. I remember him.”
The whistle blew three times and he put his plan into motion.
I would now be witness to the unimpeded, uncalculated actions of that young man who believed himself to be alone. The solitary man; the secrecy and anonymity that aloneness offered. Whatever that man’s actions be, I would be the one privileged to strip off the mask he’d unquestioningly worn––and better yet, he would be completely unaware that with one definitive glance into his occupied room, that illusory physiognomy would be peeled away.
Thus, I found my fantastical pursuit of the Turk to culminate in a swift action that represented the anti-fantasy. I was in reach of reality. He wouldn’t think of himself as exposed, for he would never know I’d sat up from the couch a second time, balanced myself, and walked the width of the space toward his bedroom door. Blinded by the light spilling from the room ahead, I paused just three feet from the entry way to adjust myself and allow my sights to clear before reaching for the doorframe that would shield me from being seen. Hand grasping frame, I leaned forward with a stifled breath and delivered the climax to the tension that had awoken some compartment of own identity. Untethered to the thought of repercussions, I did the only action I’d ever wanted to do in that basement room. I gazed.