By Karen Hunt
Glory days, well they’ll pass you by / Glory days in the wink of a young girl’s eye
Wiley Rayburn put the pedal to the metal on the deserted country road, sending up a brown tornado of dust behind his rusted-out Pinto. With any luck he’d get to the county courthouse just in time for his divorce hearing.
He’d fallen asleep when he got off duty early that morning. By the time he woke up, there wasn’t time to shower or shave or even change out of his uniform. But maybe that was okay, he decided. It couldn’t hurt to remind the judge that he was an underpaid cop who busted his tail every day to protect the public. Not that Mallard, Illinois, was a big crime capital. Still, it had its share of beligerant drunks, domestic disputes, under-age drinking, vandalism. Any mischief generally happened at night, during Wiley’s watch.
Patrolling the sleepy streets, he’d rehearsed what he’d tell the judge when Endress started listing his faults. This morning he couldn’t remember any of the great lines he’d come up with. An unpleasant odor rose from his armpit when he wiped sweat off his brow with the back of his hand.
Just then he noticed something hovering in the gray December sky. It looked like the flying saucer sled he had as a kid. No telling how big it was or how high. Probably one of those weather sattelites. But the thing seemed to be watching him. When he sped up or slowed down, it did, too. It stayed with him past the Jaegers’ farm and the gravel pit, Crabby Appleton’s orchard and the Log Church Cemetery. He lost sight of it when he passed through a dense patch of trees at Tapley’s Timber. Just as he emerged, the silver disk shot upwards, like a smokeless rocket, and disappeared. Hands trembling, he fumbled in his shirt pocket for a stick of Juicy Fruit. He wished he still smoked.
The only person he could tell about what he’d seen was Denny, his best friend since they were six-years-old. Denny wouldn’t think he sounded like one of the nut jobs who called into the radio program Wiley listened to making his rounds in the squad car late at night. Those poor fools talked about riding on space ships with aliens and having their their naked bodies probed with cold, glowing wands. The show’s host egged them on, sounding completely convinced by their fantastic stories. “There’s nothing to fear, is there?” the deep, seductive voice would say. “They’re just trying to understand what it’s like to be human.”
But he wouldn’t be telling Denny anything. Wiley, and nearly everybody in town, suspected Denny was sleeping with Endress. Ever since high school, when Endress and Wiley started dating, she and Denny couldn’t stand each other. But they’d gotten real chummy since Wiley and Denny’s ex-girlfriend, Marla, had their little car accident back in the spring. Nothing had happened between him and Marla that night, but as much grief as he was getting, they might as well have had sex. And robbed the bank, too, while they were at it.
He rolled down the window and gulped cold air. He couldn’t think about Denny or the UFO right now. He had to focus on business. That’s what Coach Zehr used to tell him when he played basketball in high school. Focus.
With three minutes to spare, he pulled into the courthouse parking lot. The only open space was reserved for police cars; he’d talk his way out of a ticket later. As he scrambled out of the car he forgot he’d unfastend his belt and loosened his zipper for the drive. Even after sixteen years of marriage, Endress never thought learning to cook a decent meal was part of the deal. But her lousy food kept him from becoming the porker he was now. Since he and Endress split, he’d been living with his mother above her restaurant, in the apartment where he’d grown up. Homemade cinnamon rolls every morning, mashed potatoes and gravy twice a day. A wonder he hadn’t gained more. He ducked behind a pickup to fasten his pants.
After wandering the halls for ten minutes, he finally found the right room. Judge Schemerhorn sat at one end of a big table pontificating to the two lawyers and Endress. She was wearing the lavender sweater they’d had a major row over. It cost more than he made in two days. But he had to admit, she looked good in it.
“Mr. Rayburn,” the judge said. “So nice of you to join us.”
“Sorry, Sir,” Wiley said. He could feel the heat rising on the back of his neck and spreading to his face. “Official business, in Mallard. I couldn’t break away in time.”
“Big crime wave, huh?” Endress’s lawyer smirked.
Wiley took his seat and the hearing got underway. His mind felt muddled from lack of sleep and whatever the hell he’d seen in the sky. His crotch itched and he was hungry.
Endress brought her A game. Cool and calm, she made him sound like an asshole without ever calling him one. “He’d rather spend time with his buddies,” she said. “Drinking and playing basketball. He spends money on his toys, his motorcycle and his boat, instead of things for the house.” His argument that he’d earned the money for his so-called toys by roofing people’s houses sounded feeble.
She worked her dimples and eyelashes, got the tears going at just the right moment. Even his own lawyer gave him a dirty look when he suggested Endress get a job if she needed more money each month.
To his surprise, she didn’t accuse him of infidelity. In the end, she didn’t fight him over joint custody so he didn’t object to giving her the house he’d spent endless hours remodeling. Between the alimony and child support, he’d be living with his mother the rest of his life, or at least the rest of hers.
On the drive home, a pissed-off, lonely feeling settled in the pit of his stomach. He searched the sky for the UFO. All he saw was a couple of turkey buzzards and a fading jet stream.
That night, Wiley slid into the worn seat of the patrol car with two thermoses of coffee. He’d committed to a double shift so he could get Friday night off for the basketball game with Teeds Grove. The rivalry went back generations. The three years Wiley was a starter in the ‘60s, Mallard won by substantial margins. His son, Brandon, was on the team and, even though he wasn’t a starter, Wiley wanted to be there for him.
Just after nine, the radio crackled with a report that Ramona Blitgen was out on the prowl. Since her father died last summer, she’d taken to wandering at night. Ramona was harmless, still folks didn’t have the patience with her they used to. Wiley found her near the water tower with one of her cats on a leash.
As soon as Ramona saw the squad car she waved like she’d been expecting him. He got out and helped her into the car. “You’re letting me down, Ramona,” Wiley said. She was shivering and disheveled. Her shabby winter coat was short in the arms and too small to button across her chest. She wore a long purple knit scarf and a green knit cap with a large blue pom pom. She smelled of Ivory soap and unwashed hair.
“You promised me you wouldn’t go up and look in people’s windows anymore,” Wiley said once he had Romana and the cat settled in the passenger seat. “What am I going to do with you?”
“Born to be baaad,” she said, slowly rocking back and forth. When she came up with lines like that, Wiley wondered if the Ramona he’d known as a kid was still there, trapped inside her messed up body.
He took her for hot chocolate at the café. The half dozen people hunched at the counter turned and greeted them. The café was warm and bright and smelled of beef gravy, hamburger grease, and French fries. Ramona shuffled to a booth, the cat concealed under her big knit scarf. Wiley shot the breeze for a few minutes with the counter crowd and gave the waitress their order.
Ramona’s nose was running, he noticed when he slid in the booth across from her. He handed her a napkin from the holder on the table. Being around Ramona never failed to put his own troubles in perspective. Before the accident, Ramona and Endress had been good friends.
The summer before her freshman year she’d been in a car accident with Endress’s no-account brother. He came out with a few scratches, but Ramona went through the windshield. She was in a rehab hospital in Rockford for months and when she came home that winter she dragged her right foot and had trouble forming words.
The waitress brought the hot chocolate along with a bowl of extra marshmallows. Ramona wrapped her chapped, chubby hands around the mug. The cat purred under her scarf.
“Hoooow’s Ennnndress?” Ramona said in her slow, slurred, drunken way.
Wiley was about to say “fine,” then changed his mind. “She’s a bitch, Ramona.”
That made her giggle. “Whaaattsss nuuuu?” she said.
Now it was his turn to laugh.
“Well, get this,” he said. “She threw me out and now she’s sleeping with Denny Altman. What do you think of that?”
Ramona scrunched up her face and slowly shook her head. The blue pom pom on her hat bounced. “Dennisss the mmmenace,” she said.
“You got that right,” he said. “I tell ya, Ramona, if I knew then what I know now,” Wiley said. He stirred his hot chocolate and watched the marshmallows melt. “We were so young and stupid when we got married. I was barely 18. Endress was still in high school. We sure as hell weren’t ready to be parents.”
Ramona, in slow motion, reached for another napkin and blew her nose. He wasn’t sure if she was listening, but it didn’t matter. It felt good to talk.
“What I regret most is how we’ve carried on in front of the boys,” he said. “We’ve never hit each other. I see a lot of couples that do. I get called in a few times a month to break up fights between a husband and wife. You’d be surprised who some of them are. Endress and I just yell. The other week Jason, my youngest, told me it’s a lot quieter at home now. I felt like a shit heel. Excuse my French.”
Ramona petted her cat and dreamily watched the waitress prepare the coffee makers for the morning shift. She licked at the cocoa on her upper lip.
Wiley told her that the night with Marla was meaningless and if Endress hadn’t always been so jealous she’d know that. In high school he’d thought it was kind of romantic when she’d go off on him for talking to another girl in the hallway. But over the years, her green-eyed craziness had gotten old. “I’ve never given her any reason for it, and I had plenty of opportunities,” he said.
He’d run into Marla at the VFW Club. It was the night before Mallardfest and he and Endress had had yet another fight. Marla was crying on his shoulder about Denny. “She said, ‘I’ve wasted the best years of my life on that bastard,’ and, you know, I was feeling pretty much the same about Endress.
“The pathetic part is nobody would have known we’d been together if my mother’s fricking cat hadn’t run in front of my car at two a.m. when I was taking Marla home. I plowed into the hydrant across from plant. The sucker blew sky high. The whole night shift was looking out the windows. By ten that morning you couldn’t find anybody in Mallard who hadn’t heard the story. You know how it is around here.”
Ramona’s eyelids drooped, but Wiley kept talking. He said he and Marla both denied anything had happened between them, but nobody bought it, especially Endress. “She said it was ‘the final effing straw.’ Then she stood on that stupid balcony I built for her and threw my clothes into the front yard, a piece at a time, while the Mallardfest parade passed by.”
Ramona held her mug in both hands and ran her tongue around the inside of the rim. She set it down hard on the table and pointed to the clock above the front door. “Hill Strrreet Blooozzz at ten,” she said. “Gotta goooo.” She took two marshmallows from the bowl and stuffed them in her mouth.
On the way to Ramona’s, Wiley noticed the temperature sign at the bank. Twenty degrees. She could fall and freeze out here before anybody found her. “No more wandering, okay?” he said as he helped her out of the car at her house. “I want you to stay in at night and leave the porch light on so I know you’re inside. If I get another call about you I’m going to have to call your sister out there in California and neither of us wants that, do we?” Ramona shook her head.
He returned to the squad car and waited until he saw the blueish light from the TV and Ramona’s shadow limp past the window and settle into a chair.
Late Friday afternoon Wiley dialed his in-laws’ number, hoping his son, Brandon, would answer. The kid had moved in with Endress’s folks last spring, after the hydrant fiasco. He barely spoke to either Wiley or Endress unless he needed money. But Wiley kept trying. Even though Brandon didn’t stand much of a chance of playing, he wanted to tell him not to be nervous. To stay focused.
Brandon had never wanted to be on the team; his buddies and the coach talked him into it so they’d have enough reserve players. “Don’t think I give a shit about basketball because I don’t,” he told Wiley. The only physical thing the kid seemed to be any good at was moon walking, like that weirdo Michael Jackson.
Wiley stood at the kitchen window with the phone to his ear and counted the rings. From here he had a birds-eye view of the northside of town. He could see the roof of his old house with the blue shingles he and Denny had put on right before everything fell apart last spring.
Every time he saw Denny these days, he wanted to punch him. But he missed him, too. Truth was he missed Denny more than he missed Endress. They’d been like brothers. When Wiley’s dad had his heart attack, Denny grieved as much as Wiley and his mom. He was like an uncle to Wiley’s kids. When Denny got home from Nam, it was Wiley who picked him up at the train and sat with him on the nights Denny cried into his beer describing the horrors he’d seen.
As Wiley hung up the phone, he thought something silver flashed in the sky. He squinted, but nothing was there. Then he heard his eight-year-old running up the stairs.
“I’m here Dad, I’m here,” Jason called out as he burst through the door. He was a husky kid who wore thick, expensive glasses. Jason galloped across the room, the hood of his parka bouncing, and threw his arms around Wiley.
“There’s my big guy,” Wiley said. He hugged him tight and sent up a silent prayer: Don’t ever let me do anything that’ll make this kid hate me.
Wiley leaned against the wall just inside the door of the crowded gym. His hand rested on top of his Jason’s curly head. He took a deep breath. His stomach did a little flip. God, how he loved this place, the bright lights, the smell of it, a mix of floor wax and stale popcorn, dirty socks and Right Guard. His hands itched to grab a ball and show off his dribbling skills, to stand in the middle of the floor and sink one.
Back in high school, besides making out with Endress, what he loved most in the world was playing basketball. He had some natural talent, but mostly he had discipline. His Dad had poured a slab and put up a hoop behind the café shortly before he died. Wiley practiced year around. He loved the metallic bing of the basketball bouncing off the cement, and the groan of the backboard as he hit it at different angles.
The Mallard Quackers were warming up at the far end of the gym. Not many balls were going through the hoop.
Wiley and his teammates beat Teeds Grove by twelve points in 1966, the biggest margin ever. They’d been tall, muscular kids who threw hay bales around all summer and shoveled snow in the winter. Undefeated his senior year they made it all the way to the Illinois High School Class 1A Championship finals. A jump shot he’d practiced a thousand times won the game. College recruiters were there. He was on his way out of Mallard.
That night, to celebrate, he and Endress had sex in a utility closet at the Champaign-Urbana Holiday Inn. The condom broke. When basketball season rolled around again, Wiley wasn’t playing freshman ball at Western Illinois as he’d dreamed. He’d had to turn down the scholarship because he was married and about to be a father. There was no high school coaching job in his future. He was hauling garbage for Endress’s dad. He hated himself for letting his mother down. “At least now you won’t have to go to Vietnam,” she’d said.
Someone grabbed his shoulder and squeezed it hard. It was Endress’s lawyer. “Hey, Rayburn,” he said, blowing beer breath in Wiley’s face. “Doesn’t seem all that long ago we were tearing up the court.”
“You couldn’t play for shit,” Wiley said, but his words were lost in the noise.
He looked around for Endress. She was in the middle section of the bleachers, wearing the lavender sweater. Denny was sitting next to her, having a big hand-waving discussion with Endress’s father who sat on the bleacher below. They were probably second guessing the coach, as usual. He wished he could tell Denny about the UFO.
“There’s Grandma,” Jason said, tugging at Wiley’s jacket and pointing to the bleachers. She was standing up waving at them from a few rows above Endress. He put his hand on Jason’s shoulders and they pushed through the crowd.
Jason spotted Endress as they climbed the bleachers. “Mom, Mom,” he called until she turned. She threw kisses at Jason and mouthed, “I love you, Baby.”
Their side of the gym was a blur of green and blue for the Mallard Quackers; across the floor, the Teeds Grove Terrapins were in maroon and gold. The pep band did a fanfare and the color guard girls in their short skirts marched in. Everyone stood as Mr. Hoekenson led the band in the National Anthem.
Wiley scanned the floor for Brandon. He was at the end of the bench, acne aglow under the harsh lights, wearing the smart-ass grin he thought made him look cool. Would he ever have a growth spurt?
From the time Brandon was born, Wiley’d dreamed of his son becoming a star player, getting the scholarship he’d never had, maybe turning pro. He’d put a basketball in Brandon’s hands almost before he could walk, but Brandon never took to it. Wiley built a regulation court in the backyard thinking it would persuade Brandon to play ball with him. On the rare occassions he’d agree to play, they’d end up hollering at each other. The boy was built like Endress, short and small boned. He had an awkward way of moving and shooting. Wiley tried everything he could think of to help him with his footwork and coordination. Brandon got frustrated and bored doing the same movement over and over. “I’m not you, Dad,” he’d yell. “I don’t want to be you.” Then Endress would enter the fray and treat Brandon like a baby, telling Wiley to leave him alone and let the kid do it his way.
Wiley couldn’t keep from watching Endress during the game. She hugged Denny every time Mallard made a basket.
The Quackers and the Terrapins played a rough game. It was tied going into the final 13 seconds. Mallard’s forward fouled out. Wiley watched Brandon run on to the floor as the Teeds Grove player made his first free throw, putting them ahead by a single point. He missed the next one. Brandon and his teammates scrambled for the ball before the Terrapins could get the rebound. Somehow Brandon ended up with it. He dribbled down the court a bit awkwardly though at full speed. Wiley could tell Brandon desperately wanted to pass the ball, but the big Teeds Grove boys were blocking his teammates. The crowd started counting down the seconds. Brandon shot the ball without even taking aim. It missed the net as the final buzzer went off. Terrapin fans screamed and poured on to the floor.
“You suck, Rayburn,” someone hollered. More voices joined in. “Loser.” “Dip squat.”
Little Jason was on his feet, defending his brother. “Shut up, shut up,” he yelled. Wiley pulled him back onto the bleacher. “Stupid heads,” Jason said, his cheeks wet with tears.
The Teeds Grove fans pounded their team and each other on the back. The Mallard players moved slowly across the gym to the locker room, trailed by Brandon who had a towel over his head, trying to disappear.
Wiley saw Endress turn and search for him. She appeared on the verge of tears. When their eyes met she shook her head and tapped her heart with her fist. Then Denny took her arm and they were lost in the crowd moving toward the exit.
He helped Jason zip his parka. “Grandma’ll take you back to the apartment,” he said. “I gotta see to your brother.”
“It’s only a game,” his mother said. “You tell that boy it’s only a game.” They both knew it wasn’t true.
Wiley paced in the hall outside the locker room. If only Bradon had listened to me, he thought. He could’ve been a damned hero.
Brandon nearly knocked Wiley over as he ran from the locker room. He hadn’t showered. He made a sound, half laugh, half sob. “I’m sorry, Dad,” he said. Wiley put his arms around his first born. The kid didn’t resist. He leaned into Wiley, then sort of crumpled.
Brandon didn’t want to go for pizza in the next town or come up to the apartment and watch TV. Wiley drove him to his grandparents’ house. “I may have to move to China,” the boy said as he opened the car door to leave.
At Brandon’s age, all Wiley had known was winning. But what had it done for him? He wanted to tell his son he was better off missing the damned basket. Winning when you’re so young makes you think you’re special, makes you think life is going to be easy. But he didn’t say any of those things. “Just let their crap roll off your back,” he said. “They’ll be on somebody else pretty soon.” The advice sounded lame, but Wiley had learned lately that sometimes there wasn’t much else a person could do.
The apartment was quiet when he returned. He could hear his mother snoring in her room down the hall. Jason was asleep in Wiley’s bed. He pulled the quilt up around the boy’s shoulders and stroked his curly head. He leaned down and kissed his cheek. Jason’s warm breath smelled faintly of Red Vines and toothpaste.
Wiley sat on the couch and nursed a beer. The pissed off, lonely feeling had returned. On TV, Vincent Price was turning into a fly. He got up and took his old letterman jacket from the closet. He grabbed a pint of Old Grand Dad from the cupboard and slipped out of the apartment. On the way down the stairs he pulled on a knit cap and gloves he kept in the pockets. From the shed next to the café he rolled out his motorcycle and pushed it down the alley before starting it so he wouldn’t wake his mother.
Main Street was deserted. The bars had closed a half hour ago. He rode past Ramona’s. Her porch light was on. He’d wait a while longer before calling her sister.
Heading north, across the bridge and out of town, he picked up speed. The cold air numbed his face. He turned off the highway and roared up Sugar Camp Hill. At the top he pulled over and got off the bike. The sky was clear and full of stars. The lights of Mallard twinkled in the distance. He reached inside his jacket for the whiskey bottle and took a swig. His throat burned and his eyes watered, then a pleasant warmth spread across his chest.
Wiley studied the sky and tried to remember the names of the constellations.
Where was the silver disk tonight, he wondered. Were there creatures inside? He took another draw on the whiskey bottle. Were they as lost as he felt? He twirled around, head tilted back, arms spread wide. “Come and get me you little shits,” he hollered into the cold night. “I’m your guy. I’ll tell you what it’s like to be human.”