In front of last night’s highlight reel, Stoke watches blocks and tomahawks from guys whose vomit he has cleaned out of the back of his Range Rover. They have shared tall stacks of diner pancakes and palaver about their last warm bed on spun-out nights in unknown cities. He has marked occasions of birth and death beside them, and now they’re nothing more than familiar icons on a silver screen.
At least he’s beating the spread. Statistics hold that sixty percent of NBA players are broke within five years of leaving the league, an anniversary he reached two months ago.
In the apartment below, the tenant is yelling, “Where did you put the margarine, Cecile?” The man is seventy-one and has advanced rheumatoid arthritis. He used to be a famous dressmaker in Shanghai, and now with his fingers skewed––what they call a swan-neck deformity––all he has is his beautiful relic of a wife.
The landlord lives to gossip.
Below, the small talk of the arthritic dressmaker and his former-model wife, and above, the footfalls of a Pritzker Prize–winning landscape architect. This is the company he keeps.
He hunches at the eastern edge of his custom-sized bed. Coffee stains form state boundaries on the road map of the comforter, a blonde roast for California, cortado for New York. Stimulants now fill the space left by team travel. At his bedside is a compact black refrigerator with a door that’s hard to jimmy, and from it he yanks a diet cola.
The comforter is bordering on obscene. He needs to take it to the damn dry cleaner. Why he can’t bring himself to walk the two blocks, split ten words with the small fry behind the counter, is beyond him. With the television still lit, the unopened can in his big hand, his limbs find the corners of the mattress. The chemical clean will wait. The only errand he can think about performing is going back to sleep.
Four in the afternoon, Stoke wakes with palpitations. The organ mimics a heavily delayed backbeat, some primal equivalent of Wilson Pickett’s “In The Midnight Hour.” He blames the caffeine.
He rolls onto his right, the deflated basketball of his stomach resisting the course. His heart is going one-two-three-four-one-two-one-two, hasty emphasis on the ones, plainer on the multiples. He needs to get to the bathtub, he needs to turn the silver tap to cold, he needs to hold the showerhead to his Achilles tendon where the tissue is raw and will feel the shock most clearly and he needs to make that happen right now.
The television is airing a story about a ten-year-old phenom in Amarillo who has become a renowned practitioner of the Philippine martial art of eskrima. In a blade culture, the anchor says, weapons training is what gives the fighters their edge. Any ordinary object can be used in a street fight to multiply force. In one hand, the kid has a karambit, a knife shaped like a tiger’s claw, and in the other he has a ballpoint pen.
Stoke makes it to the shower, because it’s easier than turning off the TV. The water finds comfortable stretches in some ligaments and tender tracts in others. Afterward, he skips the motion of toweling and pegs straight into a pair of ratty gym shorts that have been in his closet since Michael Jordan retired the first time.
He charts the ten feet to the kitchenette and drinks sweet tea from the carton. How the superstitions used to play: cranberry cocktail in the Northeast, soda water in the Midwest, Arnold Palmer in the South, and in the West you just pounded bitters and tried not to get lonely. He’s laughing about the time he failed to account for the effects of Salt Lake City’s elevation and ended up dizzying back to his hotel room and passing out with his lips to a jar of pickled eggs like it was a woman when he loses his grip on the cardboard. The carton knocks a decanter of sea salt from the counter onto the tile, and it fractures. All those salt grains and shards of glass and the sweet tea flowing through it. He covers the catastrophe with a black garbage bag.
The landline on the kitchen wall rings. “Everything okay?” the architect asks. “I heard a crash down there.”
“Think we’re good here, chief,” Stoke answers gratefully. He’s only made contact with the architect a handful of times. He wonders, if the situation had been reversed, if he would have picked up the telephone.
To inspirit himself to the elevator, Stoke pulls a copy of Aristotle’s Rhetoric from the black fridge beside his bed. It was a gift from his phlegmatic college coach, and he wants to protect the pages from the ambling heat of his apartment.
A passage is dog-eared from a trip to the finals. That was where you learned the heights and limits of the body’s grace, and where, if you were fortunate as he had been, you lived the rush of outranking your equals. On the page is an epigram from an Olympic victor:
I used to carry on my shoulders with a bucket-yoke fish from Argos to Tegea
Stoke finds his footing and makes it as far as the mailbox in the geometric lobby. The week before, he made it to an interview for a Division III coaching position, and to intensify the toll on his heart they have elected to send their decision by mail. He settles his key into the antique brass hole and finds the letter he’s looking for, bookended by a hydro bill and a notice that his cable will be cut.
On the way back upstairs, he holds the elevator door for the arthritic dressmaker and his wife. They huddle in the four-square-foot space, offering muted expressions to Stoke, hers tired, his genial but drawn.
“Afternoon,” the dressmaker says before he leads his wife out of the elevator.
Stoke tosses the bills on the dining table, among half-torn envelopes, business flyers, bank statements, a dune of paper into which a whole life could disappear. He slits into the DIII letter with the tine of a fork and lasts a paragraph before he sees the words abundance of personnel.
He toasts frozen homestyle waffles and spreads hot salsa into every square of the grid. This is what his father made him after practice in grade school. He would add a bloom of avocado when it was on sale and neaten a plastic tablecloth and say Eat up champ, because he was doing his best. There’s no room to eat at the dining table, so Stoke flips on the television in his bedroom and is met with three shades of gray haze. He would be mad at the men who cut the cable, but they were just paying the bills.
Below, he can hear the former model whimpering to her husband, “Darling, I’ve made a whole spread. Come eat before it gets cold.” Stoke wonders if the dressmaker eats with his own gnarled hands, or if she feeds him.
Their smoke alarm begins to wail, relentless through the filmy floorboards of the building.
“Goddamn, Cecile, what is that noise?” Stoke can hear the dressmaker yell.
The former model sounds crushed. “But I already finished all my cooking. The alarm must be low on batteries.”
“For God’s sake, take care of the problem,” the dressmaker growls.
Stoke startles awake every night that week with the same palpitations, one-two-three-four-one-two-one-two, deeply afraid in those first conscious moments when the shape of his lamp and his best-loved sneakers and his fridge full of cola are wild and unfamiliar. The movement into the world is so violent he sometimes finds himself crying without knowing why, an infant newly born.
By Saturday, fear of illness has the edge on fear of money, and Stoke takes the bus to a cardiologist in East Columbus. In the waiting room, he reads an article in O Magazine on “How goji berries can help you live a more compassionate life” and in the examination room, after answering a few questions honestly, he learns that he is at “high risk for coronary disease.”
He fidgets with his hands. There’s a mayonnaise stain on the cuff of his respectable-outing dress shirt.
The cardiologist creates a sonogram with images culled from Doppler ultrasound, and studies them for pumping capacity, tissue damage. He draws blood and broaches proteins, acids, with dulcet words like creatine kinase and triglyceride. Stoke is asked to sprint on a treadmill while electrodes are fastened to his body and a graph sketches the rate of his pulse, charting damage to the heart.
“We just want to be thorough,” the cardiologist says.
“Appreciate it,” Stoke returns.
The doctor prescribes a name-brand statin drug at a cost of two dollars a day. Stoke takes the prescription, and in his palm irons it against the bill for the consultation and testing. Waiting for the bus, he dismisses the idea that he could have asked about a generic option.
Stoke is a man with trust. When he was thirteen, he earned a hundred dollars shoveling snow in his Pepper Pike suburb. His neighbor said he would pick up a courtside ticket for him to see the Cavaliers play on Christmas. Back then, Stoke wore a burnt orange World B. Free jersey every day, washing it by hand so often that the threads pulled loose and his father thrifted him a darning needle, and on that Christmas Day Stoke waited in that tattered jersey with his winter boots on until the game was over.
At one of the college coaching interviews, he was asked his greatest flaw. He said, “I believe everyone is good.” The interviewers laughed, writing it off as fanfare.
The bus is almost empty, but he still faces forward in his window seat, plastic pharmacy bag tucked respectfully onto his lap. He pulls a copy of The Dispatch from the seat beside him and reads an article about the upstairs architect’s latest project, a campaign to vitalize parks by installing sculptures meant to be climbed on, gilded archways meant for pull-ups. “When we visit city greens, unless we have gone there with the purpose of exercise in mind, we sit with a coffee, we chat, we read novels. With this, we have a gratis way of being in public, while also using our bodies.”
Stoke wonders what a guy who uses the word gratis is doing living in such a shitty apartment building. He wonders what a guy who was a two-time NBA All-Star is doing in the same shitty building. Then he resolves he will say gratis in his next interview.