Excerpt from "Winning the City Redux," by Theodore Weesner
Posted Oct 24 2012 11:24am
About this book:It’s Detroit, 1961. Fifteen-year-old Dale Wheeler, the son of an unemployed, alcoholic autoworker, has big dreams of leading his team to the City Basketball Championship. But his dream is shattered when Dale -- the co-captain and top point guard -- is cut from the team to make way for the son of a big money team sponsor. His life in a tailspin, Dale finds a helping hand in Miss Furbish, the beautiful homeroom teacher whose well-meaning kindness gradually builds into a potentially dangerous passion. And in his lowest times, Dale gets a final shot at his dream: a hardscrabble team of street-ballers that may have what it takes to win the City Championship.
This is it. Today is the day. The first practice of the year after school in the boy’s gym. Time to show the speed, do the deed, take the lead! All these weeks and months Dale has been able to think of little else. Since last spring.
Since forever. Now it’s his turn to be the oldest, the biggest, the best. Tryouts. But he’s a returning starter and is sure as hell not trying out. He’ll be leading the way, making them pay! His excitement is such that for days on end he has been telling himself to be cool. Time to be cool and not a fool. For playing it cool is the only tool ... if you’re out to win the entire goddamn city.
Dale Wheeler is fourteen all the same, and whatever energy he may be bringing to his talking-the-talk temperature he doesn’t know how not to dream. He’s grown an inch and a half since the season ended last year and is growing still. In this instant he’s pushing up through five-nine. Sitting at his desk in school he can look at a forearm and see it growing larger, stronger, longer. Can pump up bicep-pears before the bathroom mirror at home. One on the left, one on the right! Pop, pop! Pow, pow! Hey, hey, get outta my way ... my name is Dale Wheeler and I came to play! Besides confidence Dale can call up conviction in his mind and heart. Secret power leading the way, making his day! Call me cocky and I’ll make your fat ass pay!
Dale knows he’s good. There’s no doubt he’s done the work. Like a saver saving every penny, he’s given himself to little else. At times it seems it’s all he’s done, all the time, is work-work, practice-practice. And work some more. And worked on anyway. Worked into work. Sweated into sweat all over again, before taking his shower, doing his homework, dreaming his dream. For work, as every athlete knows, is the key. The more you practice the luckier you get. Acquire the moves, absorb the steps ... and when the time comes you'll hit the groove no matter some hee-haw in the stands sputtering about luck and the bounce of the ball.
Dale has done it, is doing it, will do it. For an athlete is what he is. Maybe he’s only fourteen but he knows what he knows and he knows it’s his turn to take them all downtown to win the city! “Here comes Wheeler,” cries the Sportscaster on high. “He takes the shot! No -- he fakes the shot! He fakes the shot!! He drives! shoots! SCORES! SCORES!! SCORES!!!”
Even in his sleep at night Dale dreams of winning the city. Moments and moves from outdoor pickup games under the lights (amazing things happen in outdoor pickup games) blend in his dreams into games indoors rocking with all the students and teachers he has ever known or passed in the hallways of Walt Whitman Junior High. Waking from a dream with his mind full of rainbows he reminds himself not to go off the deep end. To settle down.
Don’t be a fool, play it cool! Playing it cool is the only tool!
Everything is a game. Life, Dale knows, is a game all the way and everything that happens depends on how you play. It’s something else he knows he knows. He has no notion of himself as a thinker, or as a smart ass ninth-grader either, but he knows what he knows and he knows that everything is a game. That playing it cool is the only tool ... when you’re out to rule.
(Okay, maybe he is a smart ass, but whoever won the city who wasn’t?)
Coming in late from working second shift at Chevy Plant Ten -- a weaving silhouette filling his bedroom doorway – Dale’s father invites his sleepy-time son into the kitchen for a Coney Island dog. Could anyone in the world more appreciate the taste of a Coney Island dog in the middle of the night than an ever-voracious fourteen-year-old playmaker, ball handler, first string guard?
As on every other night, Dale practiced at the park until the lights went out … before shooting a few in the dark. Dribbling home, into and out of illumination under corner streetlights, driving one telephone pole after another, pulling it back at the last minute (all but the dream), he showers with the landlady’s hose, reviews his school notebook at the kitchen table, and hits the sack dreaming his dream ... into which swamp there appears the purveyor of tender words and unconditional love in his life. “Hey sleepy time pal ... come have a Coney Island dog with your old dad.”
Daylight is in Dale’s eyes and it’s time to rise and shine ... despite a spur picking at his mind. Clomping into the bathroom to wash and brush, he detects “I Fall to Pieces” circling his father’s phonograph in the living room and sinks within, as always, to the old cry of loss haunting their handful of rooms at an off-beat hour. The message is familiar: His father is up yet and loaded, is emotional and sentimental, drunk and dangerous. With no one else upon whom to visit his sad memory of Dale’s runaway mother visiting his pickled brain, his father is waiting for him to appear. In Dale’s adolescent mind another lyric begins circling the breaking day: ‘You get loaded ... and I fall to pieces.’
# # #
He has no choice but to make his way into the kitchen that offers the only exit from their attic apartment ... down the backside of the landlord's house to driveway, sidewalk, refreshing air. He enters without making a sound. His father stands there. Head hanging, he’s leaning to the wall, his chin on his chest. How long has he been on his feet? His neck looks rubbery as his head lolls to one side, a grin comes on like a dim light as he says: “Don’t I know you from somewhere?”
Dale opens the refrigerator, explores possibilities, ignores his father as he does at times like these. Life with an alcoholic. Life with Patsy Cline’s heartbreak lining the air they breathe: ‘You want me to forget ... pretend we’ve never met.’
“You’re the guy stood me up!” his father tells him. “Thas who you are! Bring home a treat for the only person in the world plays tunes on my weary old heart ... get left standing at the counter.” ‘You walk by ... and I fall to pieces...’
Dale remembers then and says: “I fell asleep! That’s what I did!”
“Musta been dreaming about something a hell of a lot better looking than a Coney Island dog,” his father tells him.
“Basketball,” Dale confesses, deciding all at once to share his high hopes with his father. “I was dreaming about basketball, winning the City … which is what we’re gonna do!”
“Basketball?” his father asks. “You say basketball? Did I hear you say basketball? Is that what I heard you say?”
“It’s my big year at school!” Dale tells him.
“First time I knew anything would keep you from your favorite middle-of-the-night snack. Surprised it wasn’t something better looking than a fat old basketball.”
“I’m the biggest at school this year!” Dale tells him. “I’ve been working like a demon while everybody else has done practically nothing. Been working all summer, all fall. Gonna lead the way, make em pay!” Dale did not add how proud he hoped to make his father, or how his dream included saving his father's life, too, to a modest degree. Turning things around. Leading them to the promised land.
‘You tell me to find ... someone else to love. Someone who'll love me, too ... the way you used to do.’
Continuing to grin, his father squints. “Son ... gotta tell ya. Hope you dream other things, too. Don’t wanna put all your eggs in one basket.”
Dale nods, indicates that he knows, is cool, isn’t a fool ... know all about eggs and baskets. Doesn’t he?