My son and I are shooting baskets on the playground near our home when a voice booms out from the fringe: “Hey, I’m gonna play too!” Shielding my eyes against the setting sun, I squint at the big broad figure of an oncoming man.
“Hey Prof, how ya doin’? I bet you never thought you’d see me again!”
Closer, he looks familiar: the smooth, dark skin, the wide forehead, the nose flat and broad like mine. I grope back through the years to find the name. What is it, Clyde?
“Man, don’t you know me? Claude!”
“Yeah, Claude! How are you, Claude?” We grip hands, street-fashion. He was in my writing class five or so years ago. A hard worker, got an honest B. The kid who shattered the “dumb jock” stereotype that year. I took an interest in him.
“This is my boy Adam,” I tell him, and to Adam, a basketball fiend, I say what will matter most: “This here is Claude. He used to play for the Spartans.” Adam stares up in wonder. Claude takes the ball from his hands and tosses it up. It clangs off the rim.
“Man, I should be in the NBA now, you know that? I’m good enough to be. Some of my friends are there. They’re rich. You know Norm Van Exel? Tree Rollins?” (I nod yes.) “We grew up together. I played with them. In fact, I was better than them.”
I smile at the thought; every kid knows he’s the best. But Claude’s not smiling. “Man, I’d be there, I’d be a millionaire, I’d have bought my father a house by now. But Coach Thompson, he worked me over. He did bad by me.”
“Whattya mean, Claude?” It’s not right, how he’s talking on like this. He was quiet and cool when he was in my class.
“I came all the way out here from Buffalo to play for him, remember? I figured I’d put Wyoming on the map. I was doin’ all right, but coach, he thought I needed a father, he tried to act like one. One day I told him I already had a father and he got pissed, benched me. Man, I averaged fifteen points and ten rebounds–no, eighteen and ten–off the bench that year, but he never put in a word for me to the scouts, and I’m still here!” The ball bounces over his way and he grabs it, throws it back up too hard.
“My father died this May,” he says.
“Claude, I’m sorry,” I begin, but he has already moved on.
“But he left me something.” He plunges his hand into a pocket, removes it, opens his palm to reveal the gleam, brilliant in the yellow light, of a gold watchband. “He left me this, can you imagine? He saved this for his son.” I lean forward for a closer look, but he has already put it away.
“Were you able to see him before he died?”
“No!” he practically shouts. “I been stuck here! My girlfriend’s workin’, but I can’t get a damn job. I’m goin’ back to Buffalo to start over. I want to take my boys, show them where their dad grew up, but she says no. I got two boys now, did I tell you?”
“I knew you had one. How old?”
“One’s four, and the other’s six. Like yours, right?” We both look at Adam, who’s standing right up next to me with the ball.
“Right.” A twinge of memory: once, as proud new fathers, we compared our boys’ ages, joked and bragged about them.
“These days boys gotta have fathers. They can’t make it without them. But a city like Buffalo is no place for boys. It’s too mean, you understand? Still I gotta go. I’ll get something started, I’ll send for them…”
A silence, which Adam steps into with his small voice. “Let’s get back to the game, can we?” He places the ball in my hands.
“I gotta go,” Claude says again, and begins to turn away.
I grip his hand with both of mine, the way a minister might, or a father who never learned to hug. I’m about to say good luck, but that’s a meaningless phrase, and a mean one. “Claude, take care of yourself.” He needs more than that, I know, but who am I to give it? I was his English teacher once, I taught him how to organize his prose. I can’t tell you what to think, I’d always say, and neither can I now.
“Yeah, well,” he looks at Adam. “Enjoy your game.”
Former Santa Fean Rick Kempa lives in Rock Springs, Wyoming, where he teaches at Western Wyoming College. Rick is editor of ON FOOT: Grand Canyon Backpacking Stories, (Vishnu Temple Press, 2014) and co-editor of Going Down Grand: Poems from the Canyon (Lithic Press, 2015). His latest poetry collection is Ten Thousand Voices (Littoral Press, 2014). His essay “Alms for the Birds,” a meditation on excarnation, received the 2017 Alligator Juniper Nonfiction Prize.