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i was recently interviewed by a national magazine about my non-profit organization, WholeNest, which is celebrating its twentieth anniversary providing a model, training system and logistical support for coordinating community care for the homeless. at one point the interviewer asked me how i got involved with my business partner, aubrey carson. i had been mostly fluid throughout, giving the answers that made for good copy, lifting pretty much straight from our literature to avoid any conflict. all i could think of in answer to that question was a half truth, though. i told her, “we grew up together in boone, ky.” and i left it at that. the half that is true is that we grew up together. but i think aubrey would agree that it didn't happen in boone. to set the record straight, here's the rest of it.
i pretended to know a lot about the continent of india and the islands of the west indies when i was a kid. i grew up in a small southern town, the sort of place where rumor and innuendo grow at a quicker rate than fact or truth. like my father, i was dark and exotic. unlike my father, though, knuckleheads and yahoos never tired of asking me stupid questions about where they had heard we were from.
as a result, i never ate beef in public after the age of ten and would occasionally address my inquisitors as "sahib" or "mensahib". alternately, if pressed, i could sing a somber three minute tune in complete island-esque gibberish, left hand on right shoulder. on a good day i could even muster a crocodile tear for the motherland, santa ramona, for the finale.
fact was, we were, my dad and i, the only indians in town. american indians; wassicass, who long ago settled in the hills about 150 miles southeast of boone, the town where i grew up.
not many in boone knew any of that. fewer still cared.
in a place where people from tennessee were considered foreigners, we couldn't even pass for volunteers. but, i have no memories of racism or prejudicial treatment. mostly folks just cordially left us alone. i assumed they did so to avoid having to ask about my mother.
one lazy sunday afternoon, i was watching some john wayne movie or another on our enormous console tv. i don't remember the title, or much of the plot. i do remember one scene, though. these union soldiers drag this intractable indian chief into the office of the fort's commanding officer. you can tell right off the officer's a dick. in john wayne movies, if a guy's hair is too coiffed, his clothes too clean or his moustache too curly, he's a dick. not the sort of guy you or the john wayne character should trust. sure enough, major curlystache offers the chief a chair. when chief refuses, major curlystache leaps to his feet and yells, "i said, 'sit!' you filthy cur!" the guards holding chief's arms try to force him down. chief remains standing. maybe chief doesn't know what a cur is, either, i remember thinking. then the major comes around the desk and gets up in chief's face. starts telling him how when he is on us army property he is subject to all thewham! justlikethat chief has reared his head back and nailed major curlystache right smack on the bridge of the nose with a headbutt of galactic intensity. just a crusher. the major crumples in a feeble heap.
it was, i'm pretty sure, the first time i had seen the head used as a weapon.
i filed it away with maniacal glee in the mental folder marked aubrey carson.
i won't give you his full name. you wouldn't believe me. suffice it to say that his full name was the same as his great-grandfather's, who must have had some seriously pretentious parents, even for the age he was born into. aubrey was the least offensive of all of both their names. trust me.
every time i saw aubrey carson, which was often, i lost a significant portion of my higher brain function. the guy just narrowed my mind waves for some inexplicable reason. made me think base, primordial thoughts, frequently about killing and maiming. i didn't excuse it, nor did i ever understand it. it was a fact of life.
the library at the prestigious liberal arts college in boone was built by his grandfather and named for his grandmother. his dad financed the tennis facility and shepherded the building of the regional arts center on campus. his mother's maiden name was, not coincidentally, the same as the county we lived in.
to be fair, it wasn't so much aubrey himself. it was the kids who glommed on to aubrey, those privileged boys and girls whose parents--by dint of geography, economics, heritage and/or profession--were solidly enmeshed with and attached to the carsons. not so much a circle of families. more like a cloud. on close inspection, you could see the cloud for what it was: a buzzing darting mass of bugs, of which the kids were gnats, prodigious and annoying and too inconsequential to mash. you could swat at them and they would part like a curtain before the wind, but rarely could you squish any given one of them.
and aubrey was their porch light.
thing was, aubrey was in fact an undeniably bright soul.
even without the advantages of status and lineage and wealth, the kid would have shone brighter than most.
composed, intelligent, compassionate, respectful, charismatic, funny, fun and (this is what annoyed me most) startlingly, jarringly, bracingly genuine.
ok, yes, i hated that fucker aubrey carson as much as i hated his entourage, but for no good reason.
my dad and i volunteered every saturday at a homeless shelter for women. though he never said so explicitly, i always assumed we got up every week and drove the hour to the nearest city of any size as a vigil or stakeout for my mom.
i admit that i frequently considered the whole enterprise entirely batty. but i never breathed a word of my suspicion to my dad.
besides, i enjoyed the work and the revolving cast of characters. about the time i began driving, my dad and i assumed the unofficial title of weekend procurement managers, which meant we were the fools who made sure that we had the ingredients to put together the menu for saturday, sunday and monday morning. we were fools to assume the role, because the boss, sister mary margaret, was violently insistent that the menu be followed to the last iota. and often as not, there was something missing by saturday morning when we arrived. it seemed like the weekday volunteers always managed to burn through too much of something or another, leaving us weekenders to either face the wrath of sister m&m (don't ask) or to improvise.
luckily my dad was an improv genius. probably served him well in his hobo days.
i learned at the feet of the procurement master, but i will never equal his grandeur. as long as he is living, he will always have one more trick up his sleeve, one unexpected twist, something that is new to me that can turn the impossible into the probable.
so, anyway one cold rainy saturday in winter, we're doing the morning prep. we're low on peaches, i can tell already. my dad is farming out the volunteers at the back door to the kitchen, and every time the door opens it's like a brittle icy sneeze shoots the gap. my dad has andy, a mentally-challenged adult and a stalwart volunteer at his hip, armed with a mop to keep the floor safe. andy may have the mind of a ten year old, but he has the zeal and mission awareness of a school of piranhas. given clear instructions, i do not doubt that andy could have built the pyramids in egypt.
every time a person enters and rain spritzes the floor, andy attacks like the droplets are a personal insult.
the door pops open, and who should the winter sneeze in but his highness, lord aubrey carson.
he's not wearing a coat, only a denim shirt, jeans and heavy boots.
he approaches my dad, extends his hand to shake, and, as andy leaps into action, furiously buffing the ground around his boots and the boots themselves, i'm thinking, so the landed gentry have come to slum a while. how quaint. probably needs volunteer hours for the national honor society or beta club or some other outfit that accomplishes nothing of value but looks stellar on a resume.
we see them every week. they rarely come back a third time.
but my dad isn't sending him over to roberta, the prep queen. he's not pointing to alice grey, the de facto boss of the cleaning corps.
my dad is pointing at me.
too good to be true, i think. i believe alice would be willing to cede a little control in this case. we're tight, alice and me. i could probably get away with assigning him to bathroom duty and hear nothing about it.
bathroom duty at the shelter...
some of our clientele--and i am not passing judgment, mind you--some of the women have serious hygiene issues. they have few options to address besides this facility to address those issues.
sometimes they address them in this facility with a fury and thoroughness that rivals andy's fervor.
bathroom duty can break a person's spirit.
i reckoned that while no one deserves to have their spirit broken, perhaps it would be good for aubrey if his spirit developed a few tiny stress fractures.
he walked up to me, smiling, and held out his hand.
sure, i'll shake your hand now, buddy. but i ain't getting within a stones throw of you when we're through today.
he says to me, "your dad tells me you're the man who can help me."
i think of lob practice with my dad. he chucks up a string of fluffy knuckleballs. they flutter down all over my court. i destroy them in rapid succession. i like the way the balls gasp when my strings crease them out of their dreamy slumber.
aubrey has fluttered down into my court. i am going to like the way he gasps when i crease him.
so i wait.
but now he's telling me he's out of peaches. the cans they opened were rancid. what?
i missed something, obviously.
"who are the peaches for, again?" i ask him.
"st meinrad's," he tells me, "i've got some coming but they won't get in til tonight. if y'all can float us some to get through breakfast and lunch today, i can restock you tonight. i promise. or fruit cocktail; we can use that, if you don't have peaches."
he's looking me in the eye, as earnest as the day is long. it takes a minute for my narrowed mind to expand sufficiently to let the information in. i know that st meinrad's is the catholic church on the other side of town. i deduce from what aubrey is telling me that they, too, offer meals to the homeless. and, to beat all, not only does aubrey carson volunteer there, he has attained a position of authority equal to or greater than mine here at st e's.
this is a devastating blow to my pride. i'm reeling.
probably i should clear this with roberta, but i've only got a shred of dignity left, so i cling to it.
"how much are we talking?"
"i figure four 64's will do it. i can get you five to replace them. on the level. by, like 6 o'clock at the latest."
four 64 ounce cans of cling peaches is an astronomical figure. it's at least double what we at st e's will use today. it is also exactly what we have on hand until monday morning deliveries. they must be doing some serious hash-slinging over there at st meinrad's. i try to gulp without aubrey noticing.
"let me see what i've got," i tell him, trying to maintain my cool.
i walk back to the pantry and, as hard as i stare, i can't make more peaches materialize. if i were ate up with pride, i would give aubrey all the peaches without blinking, grab my coat and hustle to the A&P, where i'm pretty sure the manager would help me out as he has in the past. i could tell him my peaches were rancid...
just then i notice that aubrey has followed me back to the pantry. fuck.
"i can give you two peaches, two pears and a fruit cocktail," i tell him without looking away from the metal racks.
"perfect," he says, "i'll get you four peaches and a fruit cocktail before five."
damn, the guy knows his stuff, too. cling peaches are pretty much the gold standard in outreach kitchens: double in value, easily, to any other fruit source.
i load a cart and he wheels it to his car. i follow him this time.
"man, i can't thank you enough," he tells me, and shakes my hand again.
my dad and i usually cut out around four in the afternoon. i was kinda dreading thinking up some excuse to hang around waiting for the repayment peaches, if they came at all.
but, i had no reason to worry. aubrey carson was on the case. a guy in an bunny bread delivery truck dropped off four cans of peaches and one of fruit cocktail as we were finishing up at four.
i only went to the carson home once. somehow or another, probably through tennis, i got invited to aubrey's eleventh birthday party. i didn't want to go. my dad insisted, saying it would be rude not to attend.
i recall making the gift shopping a nightmare. i picked out the most elaborate, expensive toys that the department store downtown carried. my dad told me repeatedly to set my sights a little lower. i complained that anything but the best would make us look poor in the eyes of the other kids who would be there. i was hoping he'd be shamed into forgetting the whole idea. instead, he just said, “there are worse things than being poor.”
“like what?” i demanded.
“like being an asshole,” he replied. he picked up a model kit of an aircraft carrier and proceeded to checkout.
at least the box is big, i thought when he dropped me off later that week.
the carson home was old and big, but not nearly as big as i had imagined. there were a lot of rooms and a lot of ways to get lost, but in the main, the rooms were not that expansive. mrs carson instructed me to put the gift in the parlor, so i turned in that direction.
“excuse me?” she said.
i hadn't said anything, so that's what i told her. i turned to comply with her instructions.
“exactly, and that is the problem, mister,” but this time she had me by the biceps.
it hurt. she was staring in my face. her eyes did not look right, like she was having a hard time focusing on my face when it was so close.
“i'm sorry, ma'am. i don't understand.” i was getting close to panic.
“you are correct. you do not understand. when i tell you to do something, you respond with, 'yes, ma'am' to indicate that you are aware of my demands.”
i stammered, “yes, ma'am” to indicate that i was aware of her demands, but i don't think she heard it. she had already dropped my arms and spun off toward the kitchen.
i was shaken by the episode, so i scoped out a safe room and settled in for a long afternoon of being casually ignored. while the other boys ran around together, oblivious to my presence, i flipped through the encyclopedia i found in the library. i figured i could get a few volumes in before the cake and ceremonies. i was in the f's looking at the color spread of the flags when aubrey found me. he told me they were having a car jumping tournament in his room and that i should come. i waited for him to leave so i could ignore him, but he waited for me in the doorway.
he had a pretty sweet room, with a walk-in closet crammed with shelves full of neatly organized toys. there was an enormous box full of hot wheels track on the floor, and a couple of carrying cases full of cars beside it. the other boys were digging through the track parts or claiming the highest spots in the room to start their jumps from. aubrey sat winding some sort of contraption i had never seen, calm in the chaos. when he put the contraption down, i snuck over to check it out. it was an sst motorcycle. i had seen it before, advertised on tv. you ripped a cord through its innards and the gyro mechanism inside made it take off like a rocket. i was dying to see it work, but dared not do it myself.
i had almost swallowed my pride enough to ask aubrey for a demonstration when he came out of his room.
“you gotta see this,” he said, and took the cycle from me. i followed him to what i guess was his parents' room. it had a long stretch of open hardwood floor. he aimed the cycle at the far wall, ran the zipper through it and sat it down. in a split second it came to a crashing halt twenty feet away.
we ran that thing back and forth across the room for quite a while. i suggested we make a jump for it, and so we finally headed back to his room. there weren't as many kids there any more, but we thought nothing of it. we had a jump to construct.
we tested the first jump, and it exceeded our wildest expectations. the cycle leaped clean over our target and in to the closet, where it crashed into a rock'm sock'm robot boxing ring, which knocked the blue bot's block off. we squealed at the happy accident and set up increasingly trickier jumps.
it was i who suggested we attempt a ricochet, for the record.
we set the rock'msock'm robot ring out in the hall, just beside the door. aubrey adjusted the ramp and launched the cycle. it struck the door frame high and came down perfectly on the red robot's head, which knocked his block off.
not to be outdone, i moved the ring further into the hall. i had seen an angle. i was sure i could bank it blind off the hand rail above the foyer and back into the ring. aubrey was impressed and excited, watching me fiddle with the ramp.
i suppose we missed the call when we were in his folks' room. maybe mrs carson didn't realize that aubrey wasn't in the parlor. but the moment i pulled the cord, we heard his mom hum and then strike into “happy birthday” as she moved through the foyer. it was too late. i was committed.
the cycle charged across the floor, up the ramp, out the door and off the banister. it sounded like it hit the ring, but we couldn't see from our vantage. we jumped up to inspect, and what we saw instead was the cycle, still full of energy and running back toward the banister.
we watched it leap from the second floor. we saw his mom walking below, cake out in front of her, mouth open, singing.
we saw the cycle tumble into the cake, right between the ones. we saw mrs carson shriek and toss the cake into the air. then we saw it land, face down, creating a grotesque white foamy sphincter of cake and icing on the floor.
i can still see the phalanx of kids in madras shirts standing near the parlor entry at the foot of the steps, holding elaborately wrapped gifts in their little white hands.
i heard aubrey mutter, “oh shit,” and then the little white hands below dropped the gifts and began pawing the air, each other, and the big brass knob to the front door. an instant later mrs carson let out a howl that physically shook the crystal teardrops of the chandelier eye level to where we stood.
mrs carson flung the cake plate into the landing banister. it caromed off and hit a pudgy kid in the back of the calf as he sprinted out the door. she tore her apron off and flung it. it landed on the head of a small boy following the pudgy kid. he made it out without losing a step.
like a disaster siren mrs carson began wailing. and searching. and seeking. trying to find the source of her humiliation. she made her way to the bottom of the steps, wailing.
aubrey pushed me into his room, into the closet and shut the door. i heard the door to his room shut.
for a moment the wailing died down. i could hear murmuring and then wailing. aubrey and his mom. then the wailing keened higher and began fading into the distance.
i didn't stick around for the resolution. i ran to aubrey's window, went out onto the garage roof and then down a trellis to the garbage can corral. i ran through the tree lined streets of boone without pause, all the way back to my house.
even at that tender age i knew about mental illness from my days at st elizabeth's shelter. the overreaction to the slightest insults, the itchy trigger finger, the slavish devotion to an order that doesn't exist, the unpredictability and vaccilation. i just didn't know it happened to rich white people in big houses, too.
it was certainly happening at the carsons.
aubrey never mentioned the birthday debacle. i never brought it up.
just a few months later, though, word got around boone that a new wing was being added to the mental health facility out in the county. a generous anonymous donor had made the expansion possible. the residential ward was going to be top flight, according to the scuttlebutt, good enough for just about anyone to send their kin to.
as soon as it opened, mrs carson checked in.
my dad worked as a janitor and groundskeeper at the college. i think the only thing that ever had his name on it was the thermos he took to work every day.
every kid thinks their dad is a stone cold badass. most of us begin to realize that maybe the case had been overstated as we grow older. i can say honestly that in my estimation, my dad's stone cold badassery has only grown with the passage of time.
orphaned in norman, ok. sent to a bia school. beaten, isolated, half-christianized and half-starved, he found a ticket out when he found a tennis racket. the little injun kid was a natural. a phenom. when he won his first county tournament, at ten, the administration sprung for a pair of sneakers. before they sent him off to a state aau tournament at 14, they bought him a second-hand racket. that was not their first mistake, just the fatal one.
he wasted the competition, accepted the trophy and headed for the showers. his handlers found the trophy bathing in a stall a while later. they never found dad.
he hoboed across the country, westward. when i would ask him how he survived, where he found food, what he did for money, he would invariably grin and say, "i waited." waited tables? "only if i had to. just plain waited mostly." did you steal or rob? "let's just say that, as rule, there's usually somebody who needs what you have more than you do."
wound up in palm springs, where he wrangled a job as a tennis pro at a posh club. that's where he met my mom: "the palest orphan girl i had ever seen. and by far the tallest."
her parents died when she was seventeen. some say it was a murder-suicide. the more romantic sorts of boone to this day style it a double suicide. whatever the particulars, she found two bloody partial parents in the parlor, inherited a shit ton of money and got gone. she hoboed westward, as well, but in a decidedly grander fashion.
she drank too much one night at the club, which i guess wasn't irregular, and my dad hauled her out of harm's way and back to her cabana. he spent the night on the porch after mopping up the puke, stretched in front of the screen door to ward off any unscrupulous louts. he woke to her ginny breath in his face.
"wake up, geronimo, or i'm gonna drink all the coffee myself."
with that, the courtship that led to me began.
that's really all i had of my mom. the only thing useful, anyway. we, my dad and i, deployed the phrase in a variety of applications. if one of us was driving, telling a story, say, and we kinda lost the road for a second, the other would deadpan, instinctively, "wake up, geronimo." long sessions of risk would hang in the balance in our basement. one of us would make a hasty move on the kamkachtka peninsula. the other would tut-tut, sometimes in a vile nazi accent, eyes narrowed, "vake up, geronimo, or i am goink to be drinkink all ze coffee by myself."
i never knew my mom. she bugged out when i was two. she must have left my dad some sort of letter, some attempt at explanation. i always got the sense that he knew more than he was letting on. i also plainly got the sense that i would have to wait to hear what he knew.
there was some solace in knowing that none of the gossips and rumor mongers in town knew as much as my dad. wild elaborate stories would occasionally waft my way. i could wave off their stink knowing that my dad had reason to wait, to believe.
he moved us out of my mom's family home. he contracted with a maintenance service to look after the place, and we moved to a little cottage on the edge of campus.
my dad put their joint bank account in escrow and took a job with the buildings & properties department at the school. while he waited and plunged toilets and mowed grass and took bottles and cans to the recycling center, he insured that i would be able to attend the college for free, and that he himself would one day take advantage of the free tuition offered to employees of the college.
tennis was all i ever cared about for as long as i can remember. i was a pretty normal kid, i suppose, but given my druthers, i would have spent every waking moment with a racket in my hand. it was never a question in my mind that i would be a professional tennis player. i may have been naive, but i thought about my future profession the way i figured every other future fireman, doctor or veterinarian did: with complete certainty of their calling.
it didn't hurt that we lived right behind the school tennis courts. or that after work and school, my dad always had energy enough to get some food on the table and drag his ass out to the courts to humor me.
which is what he did, at least until i reached puberty. his style was a marvel of quickness and being able to see into the future. he was serve and volley before it had a name. a few strokes after service and he was on top of the net. by the time you realized it, you had but one shot: right back into his wheelhouse.
more often than not, though, he allowed the volley to continue long after it should have, just to give me plenty of strokes. he knew i relied too heavily on my power and angles, so he tried to give me a chance to develop some finesse, some actual skill like that which he possessed. but i just kept getting bigger and stronger, hitting with more ferocious force and increasing the viciousness of my passing shots. whatever finesse might have seeped into my game was rarely needed. tennis as most of the world played it, and especially how my dad played it, was a ballet, a dance of grace and composure and artistry, music in motion. i played it like a carpenter hammering together coffins after an earthquake; the fewer blows the better, on to the next one before the bodies had a chance to stink. for my peers, it really was no fun to play me. i had one setting: crush. i knocked this kid out cold once in a tournament--with a backhand from behind the baseline.
and i won almost all of the time. honestly, i didn't much like standing around in the hot sun or under fluorescent lights in shorts. if i thought of my opponent at all, it was as an impediment. i didn't enjoy the locker room camaraderie. i felt little joy in a well-made shot, only insofar as it brought the end of the ordeal that much closer. and that, the cessation of hammering, the end of a tournament, the absence of any more competition or bodies to bury, was the only thing that gave me relief, or sometimes something approaching satisfaction. i just wanted it to be over, and the quicker the better.
my dad was a tall guy, a little over average, i guess, but i caught him at around fourteen. soon after that, i noticed that he began introducing the stale balls into our matches. it took some of the pepper out of my shots, allowed him an extra step to reach my more extreme angles, and made me have to come in to the net much closer than i was comfortable doing. i knew all about the stale balls. for years, those were the only ones he would allow me to use against the practice wall. all totaled, i am completely certain i spent more years banging balls against that cinder block wall than against all living opponents combined. i admit that i am, at my core, a fundamentally lazy person. i think i learned to hit so hard so i wouldn't have to move as much to get to the rebound. in a sense, my laziness elevated my game.
and then one day it happened. my dad and i, we were playing full-tilt. the gloves were off. he was giving me his best. i was mauling the ball, but no matter how hard i mashed it, it would not go past the whirling acrobatic octopus at the net. then in an instant i saw my dad like i saw the other players, which is to say i knew what he was expecting.
this was new.
it was not the oracle of physics type of knowledge that served my dad so well. it was not the precision and surgical awareness that informed, say, bjorn borg's mastery of the game. what i had from as early as i can remember was just a pure, dispassionate knowledge of what the person across the court thought they knew, what they expected. and just as instantly, as the ball spun and arced down and bounced in front of me, just as clearly i saw my options--to give them what they expected, only harder and more maliciously; to give them something their brain could not alert their legs and arms in time for. and usually i was right.
except with my dad.
until that fateful day. i blasted first one and then another shot past him into the chain link fence. his face betrayed a mixture of embarrassment and pride, but he didn't give in. we played until it was too dark to see. i think that was when he became convinced that i might have a future in tennis.
and, if it was a surprise to others, it was not to me.
i won the junior nationals my junior year in high school, just as i had planned. i had pictured myself a little further into puberty, maybe a little burlier or perhaps with some whiskers, but when i stood on the podium in new york it was just as i had imagined it: a stepping-stone.
the scholarships poured in from tennis academies and universities. agents and sponsors called. i could write my ticket. maybe others would have let it go their heads, but i looked at it with all the wonder of a greyhound bus arriving in the depot at the scheduled time.
i signed a letter of intent to stanford university. they sent me a workout regimen in a big cardinal-red binder, and, because i had anticipated it, i actually set about following it.
i cruised through my senior year.
the friday before i was supposed to join the team in palo alto, though, i ran into some detour signs on my road to tennis history.
my mom showed up in boone.