And here, faithful readers, is the third installment (chapter) from this exciting and profound novel of mine that you are getting for free!
I remember my wreck, at least some of it. I was fifty-one years old and only four years away from a comfortable early retirement in the county school system. With no wife or children – ever – to provide for, I had saved a good part of my humble paychecks for well over ten years. My mortgage was paid and I was near the point where I knew that I would retire on a cushion just as broad and soft as the one that my working salary gave me. So I decided to give myself a birthday treat. I bought a 500cc motorbike. If I was going to live to be 102, you could have called it a mid-life crisis. For the first few weeks, I thought I would never regret the purchase. I had no trouble learning to ride it, and it did make me feel young again. It did give me a feeling of freedom. And until I hit that patch of wet leaves at the top of Timber Ridge Road, I was quite proud of myself for how well I handled that big machine with no training whatsoever. Given the spot I was in that afternoon, I don’t know that any measure of training could have helped me. I topped the hill and saw a large, snarling, German Shepherd heading right for me. On impulse, I swerved away from the dog and had it not been for those wet leaves, I might have been okay. The road was very narrow there and the east embankment, over which I fell, was a long, steep drop.
After the dog, the next thing I remember is a few words to a nurse in a blue room and then, well, then this.
It is now twilight again, and my two old players – or my vision of them – again appear at the far end of the court. Although I do not know the end of any of it, it is clear that I am being called to account. It is also clear to me now, in a way that I might have vaguely imagined before, what my sins have been; the nature of my repeated wrongs. But I am confused now in the same way I had always been before about these standards of justice against which I am being measured. They exist, I am sure of that now, and I always at least suspected that they were there, but there remains a mysterious and maddening inconsistency within them, even as they have been so dramatically enforced in these days here at the court.
I am willing to admit, indeed, I have admitted, that my actions toward Sparks were wrong. I deceived myself at every turn. I mistook my job. I believed, or wanted to believe, that I was being paid to win basketball games and not to provide moral leadership and example to unformed young men who were starving for these things. My sin here was nothing different from that of the other coaches who surrounded me at the time. Almost all of them. But, I understand that I am not being graded on the curve. My wrongs were absolute. Common or not, lesser or greater than the wrongs of others or not, they were wrong, deeply wrong, and it caused all sorts of injury and mischief within that little slice of the world that I had been given some responsibility for. So I am not demanding equal punishment for everyone else, for all of those who taught and coached with the same essentially selfish and short-sighted principles that I lived by then. I understand, and I am reconciled to this.
Another objection, more immediately maddening to me as I am vividly reminded of it night by night as I watch the play between Sparks and Murphy at the far end of the court, is this: I have admitted my wrongs; I am painfully conscious of them now and understand what they have cost others and me. Here I sit. But Brandon Murphy’s actions in this drama were no less culpable than my own. I made mistakes in dealing with Mark Sparks, and it was the case that, given my office at the time, my errors ended up costing Sparks dearly. But my wrong decisions were nothing compared to Murphy’s selfish exploitation and corruption of Sparks. And I know that Murphy was young at the time. But he was smart. He was no child. He knew, at some level, what he was doing.
Besides that, I knew before I got here that Murphy never reformed. I had it on reliable sources that he had recently used his dental practice in Cornelius as means to drug and then abuse his female patients while they were in his chair.
And yet, by every indication I now see, he moves in this alternate world without punishment or restriction. There he is, at the far end of the court, in perfect health and form – in fact in far better basketball form than I ever remember him being – and in complete harmony with the boy whose life he ruined – passing and shooting and rebounding and hollering in unadulterated joy. And Sparks, who shoots unceasingly, has never made a bucket. Murphy continues to pass him the ball and encourage him to keep going. Is this real encouragement or is it torture?
This scene rankles me more than it would most, I will admit, because of what Murphy has seemed to gain for nothing. I know not only what kind of joy such ability brings, I also know, first hand, how much it ought to cost to get there. Murphy now looks stronger than ever. His passes to Sparks are always perfectly aimed and slung from every contorted body position you could imagine. It pains me to admit it, but has grown into a worthy image of the player who he tried to emulate, if only by his haircut, in his days at Walhonde High School. He not only has the look now, he has the chops. And Sparks seems to suspect nothing.
And so, having been instructed and enlightened and judged, I remain finally bewildered and unsatisfied in the way that I was throughout my life. It is not fair. And so, contrite and repentant as I am, I am still not reconciled. I remain an outsider.