by Charles Rammelkamp
"I don't know what he'd do if Ireland had a team and they played Kentucky."
Andrew Tannebaum watches Walt Sprandell and his partner disappear laughing into the steam room. Two naked old guys, retired lawyers. Another random snatch of conversation that Tannebaum has been overhearing lately, arriving too late or coming too soon to get the whole story. Leaves him wondering what he's missed--the punch lines, the secrets, the conspiracies, the opinions. Since he lost his job at Infodyne these snippets of conversation like half-read ransom notes plague his mind with a greater urgency than he'd have felt before. Like mixed signals from a UFO, riddles proposed by a Sphinx. Still, he's glad he paid his annual membership dues at the Downtown gym before the ax fell. Gives him something to do.
Tannebaum worries. He worries about his mother. His mother was telling him just the night before about going to the old folks home to visit a sick friend and recognizing people she had formerly known as active, involved people, now drooling on their chests, pushed around in wheelchairs, etc. People whom she had not even realized she had not seen in a long time. She dreads that fate for herself. A recent widow, all alone, by herself in a small Michigan town as a cold fucking Midwestern winter approaches. Tannebaum's father died suddenly that summer. Congestive heart failure, but an autopsy had revealed cancer all over the place. Tannebaum feels terrible for his mother.
Tannebaum worries about his former wife and their children, two girls aged 12 and 9. Irene left him five years before because she thought she was in love with a younger man in her office but the relationship never worked out. Tannebaum worries about her self-esteem. She must feel she really blew it to think a thirty year old man would marry her and take care of her two kids. He's heard the guy abuses her. Hits and humiliates her, kicked her out of his trailer into the snow last winter.
Tannebaum worries about the kids because he is sure Irene resents them. With all the horror stories in the news recently of mothers killing their children like sacrificial lambs to placate the gods that are their boyfriends, he can't help but wonder about it.
"The thing of it is, I already had an upper GI, and they already ruled out a heart attack or pneumonia, so I don't know. I wish they'd let me stay in the hospital and really get this figured out."
"They don't even let you stay overnight any more, do they? I had a blockage in my urethra, and they sent me home with the catheter attached and gave me instructions on how to remove it myself."
Tannebaum whirls around to see Jack Padget and Carl Scribner pushing their way into the sauna. How he hates that phrase, "the thing of it." What could possibly be more vague?
* * * *
Gangly, splay-footed Andrew Tannebaum lopes out onto the basketball court. He's always felt that basketball was his sport, but he shies away from team competition. Shoots baskets and has imaginary games going on in his head. Tannebaum steals the pass, dribbles up court, shoots, scores, beating the buzzer. Tannebaum sinks both free throws with no time remaining. Ice water runs in his veins. Tannebaum drops one from downtown. Pure net.
In the morning, when all the lawyers are at work, the gym floor is empty. Tannebaum can play without fear of being asked to join a team.
But now, out on the floor he sees Harrison, the spidery-looking soccer player from Kenya with the jouncing dread locks. When Tannebaum first asked him what his name was, he was sure he'd said something exotic, a mellifluous jungly African name. Ahdeesahn.
"How do you spell that?" he asked.
"Like Ahdeesahn Ford," Harrison answered.
Or George Ahdeesahn, Tannebaum thought, understanding his mistake.
"Hey, mon, you play baskeetbowl with us?" Harrison is standing with two tall African-American men. Homeboys. They eye Tannebaum suspiciously. Kids half his age. They can tell he's not in their league. Younger than Harrison, too, but they show no respect for the exotic African.
"What the fuck you doing, Harrison? Gimme that damn ball!" one of them curses. Harrison is shuffling the basketball around between his feet, soccer-player-fashion.
"Nah," Tannebaum says, meanwhile. "I just want to shoot some baskets, sweat a little. I really don't have time for a game. I've got to go someplace." He gestures vaguely.
"Come on, mon. You and me against these two."
But in the end, Tannebaum is teamed up with Waverly, a muscular six-foot-five giant. Harrison teams up with the other guy. Tannebaum never learns his name. They play to eleven; the game is essentially between the homeboys. But at one point, Harrison guarding Tannebaum, Tannebaum sinks a ten foot jumper (He shoots. He scores!).
"Harrison! Why the fuck aren't you guarding him? You sorry ass! God damn!" Harrison's partner shouts. He truly sounds angry. Takes the game seriously. Tannebaum hopes there won't be any violence.
Then Tannebaum steals an in-bound pass that Harrison lobs too softly to his partner.
"You fucking jiveass nigger!" his partner explodes. "What the fuck you think you doin', man? Givin' him the motherfuckin' ball. Shit. Harrison, you sorry ass."
Waverly and Tannebaum win the game 11-8. High fives all the way around. Then Tannebaum excuses himself. He has an appointment, he says. * * * *
"I had six CAT scans. So many x-rays I probably glow when the lights go out. . . ."
"The thing of it is, you do what the doctors tell you to do. Who can you trust?"
Tannebaum listens to Walt Sprandell and Carl Scribner while he gets dressed. They're sitting in lounge chairs in the locker room. They spend their days here. In a way Tannebaum envies them their sense of retirement. He, too, has nothing to do.
Sitting by his locker, he realizes he has forgotten to get a plastic bag for his perspiration-soaked gym clothes and he walks over to the roller where they hang, looking sideways at Sprandell and Scribner. Waverly and Harrison and the other guy burst through the door then and go to the lockers.
"Good game, mon!" Harrison calls.
* * * *
Waiting for the bus home, Tannebaum listens to the people standing at the bus stop beside him. Their conversation makes him feel uneasy.
"Took the Mom from Hell to finally knock OJ off the front page of the tabloids. That girl from South Carolina."
"Can you imagine? Drowned her kids and blamed it on a black man."
The bus arrives and Tannebaum digs into his pocket for change. His pockets bulge with it. Always have. At Infodyne he was the nervous change-jingler. Amused his colleagues. Like a cat with a bell around its neck.
On the bus home Tannebaum reads the newspaper. A story says that random killings by strangers are on the increase. Drive-bys. Crossfire victims. Fatal holdups for next to nothing. An FBI report is quoted saying every American has a realistic chance of being a victim. Another story tells about tribal atrocities in one of the African nations. A member of one tribe cut off the penises and nipples of members of another tribe before sending them on their way to the refugee camp. Didn't kill them, just mutilated them. He put the penises and nipples into a plastic bag to show his commander. There were fifty-six penises and ninety-five nipples.
Tannebaum wonders briefly about the odd number of nipples.
* * * *
"Irene, how are the kids? How are Rebecca and Judy?"
"They're fine. Why? What's the matter, Andrew?"
"Are you all right?"
"I'm fine. I was just wondering about the kids."
"Why shouldn't they be all right? They're both at school."
"And I'm at work. As you know. Working."
"Still haven't found anything?"
"No." Tannebaum hates to talk about himself and quickly changes the subject. "How are you and your boyfriend getting along?"
"Actually I'm seeing somebody else." Her voice is sharp, seems to withhold information. Tannebaum doesn't speak, and Irene says, "He's black."
"Oh yeah? How long has this--how long have you--"
"I'd better let you go in case somebody calls."
Tannebaum feels sad; oddly, he feels embarrassed for people when they are so obviously trying to be diplomatic.
* * * *
"Hello, Mom? How's it going?"
"Oh, I'm doing all right."
But there's something false in the reassuring words, an emptiness that pains Tannebaum. But what can he say?
"The ladies from the church came by. They asked me if I wanted to join."
"What did you say?"
"You know, Andrew, I've avoided them ever since your father and I moved to Potawotomi Falls. I can't bring myself to see them now."
"We never did go to church."
"Do you regret that?"
"Not really. Do you feel safe?"
"There haven't been any problems."
"You heard about that girl in South Carolina."
"Wasn't that awful?"
"So you're okay?"
"Fine. How about you? Any nibbles yet? You're still sending out resumes?"
"Oh, yeah. I haven't heard from anybody yet, but it's too soon to tell."
"How are the girls?"
"I hope they're okay."
"What do you mean?"
"Nothing. Irene says they're okay."
"How are Irene and her boyfriend getting along these days?"
"She's seeing somebody else. He's black."
"That's what Irene says."
"Well. . . I'd better let you go. This is your dime, and it's probably costing you a fortune, calling me during the day, and you're on a budget."
"Okay, Mom. Just wanted to call and see how you were doing." On a budget! Out of work was more to the point. Again, he feels sorry for her, for the obvious attempt at tact.
"I'm just fine, Andrew. Don't worry about me."
But Tannebaum thinks of his mother tottering around all alone in that great big three-story house he grew up in in Potawotomi Falls. It was only a few years ago that another widow down the street, Mrs. Watson, was bludgeoned by some black kid for her Social Security check. A cocaine addict.
That's when Tannebaum discovers his wallet is missing. It's not in his back pocket. A lucid bolt of panic shoots through him like electricity.
Once, about two years ago, Tannebaum was held up at an ATM by a tall black youth with a gun. He'd taken fifty dollars from the machine, and the man demanded the money. Tannebaum gave it to him. A few months later the same guy was arrested at the same ATM, having tried his luck once too often. Tannebaum was subpoenaed to identify him at the preliminary hearing. Eventually the guy was given a twelve year sentence. A plea bargain. Tannebaum never got his money back.
It had to be somebody at the Downtown gym. Suspicion hardens to conviction. Probably one of those homeboys, he thinks with a feeling of guilt. Sure, they need it more than he does, but you can't condone theft. When he went to get the plastic wet bag. Tannebaum tries to remember the last time he had his wallet, actually felt it. He cannot. Must have been when he got to the gym. Took his membership card out of his wallet, gave it to the girl in exchange for two towels. When she returned the card on his way out, he simply stuffed it into his pocket. Should have checked then. Damn!
Tannebaum makes the thirty-minute bus ride back to the Downtown club, a feeling of dread in the pit of his stomach. At least he has enough change in his pocket for the bus. It comes in handy. Tannebaum still picks up pennies on the street when he sees them; nobody else does. He brings his gym bag with him, too. Might as well take advantage of the situation, have another workout. Then the little wall of optimism he has been constructing crumbles, and the sadness floods in. Why him? Why did they have to take his wallet? Wasn't Harrison his friend? He knows they did it! He knows they stole his wallet!
The three towel girls at the Downtown club are virtually identical, interchangeable athletic blond bunnies named Kim, Stacey and Jennifer. Tannebaum is never sure which is which, except that Jennifer calls him "Mister Tannebaum," as if he were a dinosaur. A 45-year old man already sent out to pasture. Stacey has a musical, lilting way of greeting everybody: "Hi-yii, how are yuh?" Kim is the other one, and maybe she has brown eyes where the others' are blue.
"Mister Tannebaum. Weren't you just in here?"
Bingo. It's Jennifer. Come to think of it, she looks a little like Nicole Simpson, OJ's wife.
"Every time I get dressed I see that scar, and then I look over at my baby and I see how big he is now."
"But Dolores don't want no C-section."
Tannebaum glances over at the two women who walk past in bathing suits headed to the pool. He does not recognize either of them.
Up in the locker room Tannebaum goes to the locker he'd used. Of course, there's no wallet. The futility of his effort comes over him, and he leans his head against the locker. After a moment, he sits down on the bench in front of the lockers and starts to unzip his gym bag, but then he remembers he did not take the used gym clothes out of the bag when he got home, and the t-shirt, shorts and jockstrap are all wet and soiled. Damn! Well, he ought to go home anyway and start canceling the credit cards. He moans at the essential unfairness of it all, overcome by his feelings of betrayal. Harrison was his friend! Over in the lounge area by the soft drink machines a television set up on a shelf near the ceiling babbles colorfully. An infomercial about exercise equipment trips out at an energetic pace. An earnest, muscular white man is demonstrating how to use a stair climbing machine. Carl Scribner and Walt Sprandell recline on the chairs in front of the tube like decadent Romans, towels around their waists, cans of soda in their hands.
"I don't watch much TV any more," Walt says. He sounds wistful, nostalgic, as if he's lost a friend.
"Me neither. Except football on Sundays. There's a game at one, four and eight, and I watch them all."
"I think that's normal for most guys."
Normal! How Tannebaum hates it when people use that word to describe themselves. What could the word possibly mean at the end of the twentieth century? As vague as saying "the thing of it." At best you were tangled up in a web of victims and oppressors. Again, he is overcome by sadness.
In his mind Tannebaum reconstructs the theft. He figures it was Harrison who actually took the wallet. The others probably put him up to it, looked out for him while he lifted it. He feels sorry for Harrison, caught between loyalties.
At least he might as well shave since he's here. Still slumped over on the bench, Tannebaum bends over to unzip the gym bag. When he gets the bag open, he sees it. The wallet. It's right on top of the wet bag. The consciousness of what he has thought comes flooding over him. He is bathed by the shame of it, the purity of his own integrity that he will never be able to recover. Tannebaum recognizes himself in that instant as all the people for whom he has always had contempt.
Out on the street, having shaved, Tannebaum feels his composure begin to return. Ahead of him, he sees Harrison and a flood of warmth comes over him, relief at not having exposed his suspicions, and he is about to call out to him when he sees a car pull up, a Toyota Tercel that he is sure he recognizes. He does. It is Irene. Harrison climbs in beside her. They kiss and then the car drives away.