Dinner in the cafeteria the next night was meat loaf, one of the rare dishes that didn’t arrive deep-fried, and, perhaps as a result, meat loaf was Maureen’s greatest failure — a stringy, gravy-soaked concoction that did not much resemble a loaf and did not much taste like meat. Although I’d never ridden in it, Alaska apparently had a car, and she offered to drive the Colonel and me to McDonald’s, but the Colonel didn’t have any money, and I didn’t have much either, what with constantly paying for his extravagant cigarette habit.
So instead the Colonel and I reheated two-day-old bufriedos — unlike, say, french fries, a microwaved bufriedo lost nothing of its taste or its satisfying crunch — after which the Colonel insisted on attending the Creek’s first basketball game of the season.
“Basketball in the fall?” I asked the Colonel. “I don’t know much about sports, but isn’t that when you play football?”
“The schools in our league are too small to have football teams, so we play basketball in the fall. Although, man, the Culver Creek football team would be a thing of beauty. Your scrawny ass could probably start at lineman.
Anyway, the basketball games are great.”
I hated sports. I hated sports, and I hated people who played them, and I hated people who watched them, and I hated people who didn’t hate people who watched or played them. In third grade — the very last year that one could play T-ball — my mother wanted me to make friends, so she forced me onto the Orlando Pirates. I made friends all right — with a bunch of kindergartners, which didn’t really bolster my social standing with my peers.
Primarily because I towered over the rest of the players, I nearly made it onto the T-ball all-star team that year.
The kid who beat me, Clay Wurtzel, had one arm. I was an unusually tall third grader with two arms, and I got beat out by kindergartner Clay Wurtzel. And it wasn’t some pity-the-one-armed-kid thing, either. Clay Wurtzel could flat-out hit, whereas I sometimes struck out even with the ball sitting on the tee. One of the things that appealed to me most about Culver Creek was that my dad assured me there was no PE requirement.
“There is only one time when I put aside my passionate hatred for the Weekday Warriors and their country-club bullshit,” the Colonel told me. “And that’s when they pump up the air-conditioning in the gym for a little old-fashioned Culver Creek basketball. You can’t miss the first game of the year.”
As we walked toward the airplane hangar of a gym, which I had seen but never even thought to approach, the Colonel explained to me the most important thing about our basketball team: They were not very good. The “star” of the team, the Colonel said, was a senior named Hank Walsten, who played power forward despite being five-foot-eight. Hank’s primary claim to campus fame, I already knew, was that he always had weed, and the Colonel told me that for four years, Hank started every game without ever once playing sober.
“He loves weed like Alaska loves sex,” the Colonel said. “This is a man who once constructed a bong using only the barrel of an air rifle, a ripe pear, and an eight-by-ten glossy photograph of Anna Kournikova. Not the brightest gem in the jewelry shop, but you’ve got to admire his single-minded dedication to drug abuse.”
From Hank, the Colonel told me, it went downhill until you reached Wilson Carbod, the starting center, who was almost six feet tall. “We’re so bad,” the Colonel said, “we don’t even have a mascot. I call us the Culver Creek Nothings.”
“So they just suck?” I asked. I didn’t quite understand the point of watching your terrible team get walloped, though the air-conditioning was reason enough for me.
“Oh, they suck,” the Colonel replied. “But we always beat the shit out of the deaf-and-blind school.” Apparently, basketball wasn’t a big priority at the Alabama School for the Deaf and Blind, and so we usually came out of the season with a single victory.
When we arrived, the gym was packed with most every Culver Creek student — I noticed, for instance, the Creek’s three goth girls reapplying their eyeliner as they sat on the top row of the gym’s bleachers. I’d never attended a school basketball game back home, but I doubted the crowds there were quite so inclusive. Even so, I was surprised when none other than Kevin Richman sat down on the bleacher directly in front of me while the opposing school’s cheerleading team (their unfortunate school colors were mud-brown and dehydrated-piss-yellow) tried to fire up the small visitors’ section in the crowd. Kevin turned around and stared at the Colonel.
Like most of the other guy Warriors, Kevin dressed preppy, looking like a lawyer-who-enjoys-golfing waiting to happen. And his hair, a blond mop, short on the sides and spiky on top, was always soaked through with so much gel that it looked perennially wet. I didn’t hate him like the Colonel did, of course, because the Colonel hated him on principle, and principled hate is a hell of a lot stronger than “Boy, I wish you hadn’t mummified me and thrown me into the lake” hate. Still, I tried to stare at him intimidatingly as he looked at the Colonel, but it was hard to forget that this guy had seen my skinny ass in nothing but boxers a couple weeks ago.
“You ratted out Paul and Marya. We got you back. Truce?” Kevin asked.
“I didn’t rat them out. Pudge here certainly didn’t rat them out, but you brought him in on your fun. Truce?
Hmm, let me take a poll real quick.” The cheerleaders sat down, holding their pompoms close to their chest as if praying. “Hey, Pudge,” the Colonel said. “What do you think of a truce?”
“It reminds me of when the Germans demanded that the U.S. surrender at the Battle of the Bulge,” I said. “I guess I’d say to this truce offer what General McAuliffe said to that one: Nuts.”
“Why would you try to kill this guy, Kevin? He’s a genius. Nuts to your truce.”
“Come on, dude. I know you ratted them out, and we had to defend our friend, and now it’s over. Let’s end it.” He seemed very sincere, perhaps due to the Colonel’s reputation for pranking.
“I’ll make you a deal. You pick one dead American president. If Pudge doesn’t know that guy’s last words, truce.
If he does, you spend the rest of your life lamenting the day you pissed in my shoes.”
“All right, no truce,” the Colonel shot back.
“Fine. Millard Fillmore,” Kevin said. The Colonel looked at me hurriedly, his eyes saying, Was that guy a president? I just smiled.
“When Fillmore was dying, he was super hungry. But his doctor was trying to starve his fever or whatever.
Fillmore wouldn’t shut up about wanting to eat, though, so finally the doctor gave him a tiny teaspoon of soup.
And all sarcastic, Fillmore said, ‘The nourishment is palatable,’ and then died. No truce.”
Kevin rolled his eyes and walked away, and it occurred to me that I could have made up any last words for Millard Fillmore and Kevin probably would have believed me if I’d used that same tone of voice, the Colonel’s confidence rubbing off on me.
“That was your first badass moment!” The Colonel laughed.
“Now, it’s true that I gave you an easy target. But still. Well done.”
Unfortunately for the Culver Creek Nothings, we weren’t playing the deaf-and-blind school. We were playing some Christian school from downtown Birmingham, a team stocked with huge, gargantuan apemen with thick beards and a strong distaste for turning the othercheek.
At the end of the first quarter: 20-4.
And that’s when the fun started. The Colonel led all of the cheers.
“Cornbread!” he screamed.
“CHICKEN!” the crowd responded.
And then, all together: “WE GOT HIGHER SATs.”
“Hip Hip Hip Hooray!” the Colonel cried.
“YOU’LL BE WORKIN’ FOR US SOMEDAY!”
The opposing team’s cheerleaders tried to answer our cheers with “The roof, the roof, the roof is on fire! Hell is in your future if you give in to desire,” but we could always do them one better.
“YOU’RE MUCH BIGGER, BUT WE ARE SMARTER!”
When the visitors shoot a free throw on most every court in the country, the fans make a lot of noise, screaming and stomping their feet. It doesn’t work, because players learn to tune out white noise. At Culver Creek, we had a much better strategy. At first, everyone yelled and screamed like in a normal game. But then everyone said, “Shh!” and there was absolute silence. Just as our hated opponent stopped dribbling and prepared for his shot, the Colonel stood up and screamed something. Like: “For the love of God, please shave your back hair!” Or: “I need to be saved. Can you minister to me after your shot?!”
Toward the end of the third quarter, the Christian-school coach called a time-out and complained to the ref about the Colonel, pointing at him angrily. We were down 56–13. The Colonel stood up. “What?! You have a problem with me!?”
The coach screamed, “You’re bothering my players!”
“THAT’S THE POINT, SHERLOCK!” the Colonel screamed back. The ref came over and kicked him out of the gym. I followed him.
“I’ve gotten thrown out of thirty-seven straight games,” he said.
“Yeah. Once or twice, I’ve had to go really crazy. I ran onto the court with eleven seconds left once and stole the ball from the other team. It wasn’t pretty. But, you know. I have a streak to maintain.”
The Colonel ran ahead of me, gleeful at his ejection, and I jogged after him, trailing in his wake. I wanted to be one of those people who have streaks to maintain, who scorch the ground with their intensity. But for now, at least I knew such people, and they needed me, just like comets need tails.