|The Town That Knew Me When
Jerry knows Missouri and Texas, Arkansas and Kansas. He knows when to look for a teammate who's cutting back door, the difference between a shot that leaves your hand and finds nothing but net, or one that finds nothing but the back of the rim. He doesn't know anything about Gary, Indiana.
It's still hot in El Paso in October, when he gets on the crop-duster plane, and in Dallas when they get on the first big plane. When he and Harry change planes in St. Louis, too many people still staring at them like they did something bigger than win a basketball game, the air in the jetway is starting to turn cold. Jerry turns his collar up as they walk through the terminal and Harry laughs at him, knocks into Jerry's side with a friendly elbow. "Colder than this in Gary, white boy," Harry says, too loud, and an old woman, with blue hair and a fur coat turned up at her neck, glares at Harry.
Harry doesn't notice, or he pretends he doesn't notice. They've all gotten better at not noticing in the last year, or better at pretending. The newspaper called it the greatest upset in the history of college basketball, the history of sports -- at least the ones that didn't call it the greatest travesty in the history of sports. There weren't many of them, just clippings mailed anonymously with Lexington, Kentucky postmarks, and Jerry poured over the columns until they were dog-eared and Harry took them away from him, balled them up and said, "Don't bother with that junk. We don't."
They'd heard worse all season. They heard worse after they won than they did before.
Jerry still notices that people are staring at him and Harry. St. Louis is a big city, but it's still Missouri.
El Paso stood behind them, but it's still Texas.
No one stares at them in Chicago, when they land in O'Hare. It's a big airport and the people there are all wrapped up in whatever it is that they're doing -- nobody's got time to stare at a couple of basketball players, no matter what color they are. The few people who stare at them, it's a different kind of staring. Jerry trails in Harry's wake, pushing through the crowds, and the people who look up at them do just that, look up. Their eyes track up, looking at the two tall guys, not the two basketball players or the white man and the black man.
Jerry hadn't realized how much time he'd spent being noticed this year until people stop looking. He lags behind Harry, watching people not watching him in the crowd, until Harry turns around and shouts, "Come on, hayseed, can't miss the train."
Then people turn and look at them, and Jerry hears the whispers start again.
They'd thought winning would shut people up. It's just made them talk more, and even in the airport in Chicago, when people start to notice, they know who Harry and Jerry are.
Harry falls asleep as soon as they step foot on the train, head fallen to one side, mouth open. Jerry watches South Chicago pass by, turning into Western Indiana. It's like nothing he's ever seen before, factories stacked one beside the other as far as the eye can see, sky clouded with haze and smoke. There are hills, dark and sinister against the pale grey sky, next to each factory, and he wakes Harry to ask what they are.
"Slag heaps," Harry says, and goes right back to sleep.
It's another world entirely. It's nothing like Texas, nothing like Missouri.
The only thing familiar is the way that Harry starts to snore when he's been asleep ten minutes, so Jerry pulls his eyes from the wasteland outside the window and stares at his hands, at Harry's knees, at their suitcases stacked on the seats opposite them, instead.
There's still questions he wants to ask -- we were better than they were, how is that an upset? -- and things he doesn't understand, but he knows that this trip is Harry's idea of an answer, to some unasked question, and Jerry doesn't want to ask a stupid question if the answer's right in front of him. There's still questions, and even after winning, after getting to a place where he did understand the things that were going on, he doesn't know if the answers are there and he just can't see them, or if there are no answers at all.
Harry wakes up without prompting a couple of minutes before they pull into the train station in Gary. "You okay, man?" he says, and Jerry jumps. The landscape of Gary doesn't look any different than South Chicago did, and Jerry doesn't know what he expected Harry's hometown to look like. Like Jerry's own hometown, maybe, but it just looked like the face of another planet, somewhere distant and alien.
"Yeah," Jerry says. "It's just different."
"No place like home," Harry says, and swings himself out of the train seat and into the aisle with the same grace that carried him down the court. "Let's go, Ma said she'd keep dinner."
Everybody stares at them in Gary, because that's where Harry's from and everybody knows him. Harry ambles down the train platform knocking fists and slapping outstretched palms, and Jerry follows him, caught in Harry's wake but grateful for it, too, because Harry was a celebrity in his hometown and nobody in Gary, Indiana gave a damn about Jerry Armstrong from Missouri.
Everybody stared, but nobody noticed, and that was different.
The air in Gary is thick, heavy, full of smoke, and the buildings crowd in on each other like the buildings in Chicago did, like the buildings in El Paso and Missouri never did.
Jerry feels short standing on the street, waiting for a cab to take them to Harry's mother's place, even though he's head and shoulders above almost everyone he stands next to. Except for Harry, of course, who's standing next to him grinning like a dope and slapping hands with all the passers-by.
It's a ten-minute cab ride, two dollars, and half a dozen steel mills before they get to Harry's place. It's a neat little house, white siding and a tiny lawn, and packed as closely to its neighbors as all the steel mills are packed next to factories and the sky. There's not a single place to catch his breath in this town, and when Harry's mother comes barreling out of the front door to hug both of them, it's a literal having the breath hugged out of him as much as it's a feeling Jerry has about this place.
"Harry Flournoy, what you doing standing on the sidewalk?" she says, when she's squeezed the breath out of Jerry and practically picked Harry up off the ground. "I've got fried chicken, I've got mashed potatoes, I've got pie. You boys get inside right this instant and start eating. I know it's April, but it's still too cold to be standing outside in shirtsleeves, you hear?"
They go, because Jerry agrees that it's too cold in Gary, and he can't tell if he's seeing smoke or frozen breath on the air, and because Harry's mother is a force of nature.
Kind of like Harry on a basketball court, if Jerry thinks about it.
They eat fried chicken and they eat mashed potatoes, and they eat half a cherry pie between them. Harry answers all his mother's questions about the game, about what's happened since the game, with yes, ma'am, and no, ma'am, and why don't you ask Jerry that, Ma? Jerry answers questions when she puts them to him -- where's your family from again? (Missouri.) And how does a nice boy like you end up in a place like Texas? (By accident, by fate, by the grace of God to play on a team like they played on.) And what do you want to do when you're done with school? (Teach, but he's never said that out loud before, and Harry raises an eyebrow at him and doesn't say anything about it) -- but mostly he eats.
It's late by the time they're done sitting at the little table in the kitchen. It's a warm room, homey, and when Harry's done eating his third slice of pie, he pushes his chair back and puts his feet on the table. His mother whaps him upside the head with a dish towel and Harry puts his feet back on the floor. "That's better," she says to Harry. "They teach you those bad manners in Texas?"
"No, ma'am," Harry says. He's relaxed here like he never was the whole time they were playing, and Jerry wonders if it's because he's off the court, or if it's because he's out of Texas.
Even Texas was hard, after they won. It was less hard, but it was still hard.
"Think we'll go down to the mill tonight and play a little ball, Ma," Harry says.
His mother is washing dishes, having waved off Jerry's offer, and she just grins at Harry. "You going to show them boys what a couple of college boys can do?"
"I don't know," Jerry says, because playing with Harry is one thing, but playing against, with the works at the steel mill -- well, he thinks, it can't be worse than Kentucky. Or Iowa. Or Kansas. Or Arizona. Or Fresno State. Or anywhere they played this year. Half the time Harry wasn't on his side, then. Now, at least, he knows that Harry's got his back.
And he's got Harry, which is why he's in Gary, Indiana, eating pie with Harry's mother and going to play basketball with workers at the steel mill.
"I know these brothers," Harry says. "They're not tougher than those white boys from Kentucky."
"Don't you boys stay out too late," Harry's mother says. "And don't go making any trouble, Harry, just because you've got yourself a nice new shiny ring."
They all have nice new shiny rings -- too heavy to wear every day, but Jerry remembers the way the ring glittered on Coach's hand, the day after they got back to Texas and had a team meeting and nobody had anything to say because they all couldn't stop grinning like fools.
Fools with rings that said they were national champions.
"I won't, Ma," Harry says, and gets up from his chair.
He kisses his mother on the cheek and walks out into the living room. Jerry smiles at her and says, "Thank you for dinner, ma'am," which makes Mrs. Flournoy laugh with her head thrown back.
"I'm just glad Harry brought you home, Jerry Armstrong," she says, and there's affection in her voice. "He sure talked a blue streak about you this year, thought you needed to see how the other half lived."
Jerry tries to picture Harry at home on his daddy's farm in Missouri, and he can't do it. Can't picture Harry riding a tractor or sitting on the porch drinking beer and spitting at empty cans on the railing, but Jerry couldn't picture himself sitting in Harry's kitchen in Gary, Indiana, either, and he's here now and it's real as anything.
Lots of stuff changed this year, and lots of stuff didn't change at all, but it's the stuff that did change -- he's eating pie in the kitchen of a black teammate, for one thing, and he's a national champion for another -- that counts in the end.
They walk down dark streets, back toward the train station, and Harry grabs Jerry's arm for the turnoff. Jerry would have missed it, otherwise, because it's a dark gap in a dark chain link fence, and the buildings that tower above him are too strange to keep from staring up, not out or down. It's like the way they got, at the end of the season -- just looking up, looking forward, like the future was written somewhere on the sky and not on a basketball court outside of Washington, D.C.
Jerry didn't know it until they actually stepped on the court, faced down those boys from Kentucky, that all their futures would be written on that court. He knew what the newspapers, what the team, what Coach said about the game, but it wasn't until tip-off, sitting on the bench in his warm-ups, that he really, truly knew what it meant.
When Harry pulls him through the gate, down between the buildings in the mill, Jerry can hear the sound of a basketball on pavement, different than the sound of a basketball on wooden floors.
He knows that sound -- knows the sound of a basketball on a gravel driveway, the sound of a basketball on a dirt court -- and when his eyes adjust, wary in the darkness, he can see half a dozen men (not boys, not like some of the boys they played against this year, but men, with broad shoulders and strong arms, like Harry) banging and dunking under a basket without a net.
"Man," he says, low and awed. These guys ever decide to play for Texas Western, nobody on the team but Big Daddy and Harry stands a change to keep their scholarships.
"See, what did I tell you, hayseed?" Harry says, elbowing Jerry in the ribs. "We know how to play ball up here."
He leaves Jerry standing, open-mouthed (the same way Harry did the first time Jerry saw him on the court), by the gate, and Harry lopes over to the guys playing with his hands up and his face broken open with a smile. The players stop, and Jerry can see the wariness caught up in their shoulders when Harry approaches, until he gets close enough for them to see who it is.
Then their posture changes, even if a couple of the half-dozen peer over Harry's shoulder at Jerry with the same kind of suspicion that most of the teams they played this year gave Harry, and it's all back-slapping and fist-bumping -- Jerry knows that sound, too, the sound of people welcoming home one of their own.
They heard it in El Paso, and it felt real -- standing in a steel mill after dark, it feels more real.
"Get over here, hayseed," Harry says, and Jerry goes, cautious, because Harry has his back but that doesn't mean anyone else there does. But Harry just introduces Jerry around -- Zeke, Stevo, Big Boy, Petey, Jackie, Mikey -- and says, "Thought we'd show you boys how they play ball down in Texas."
Which earns them some good-natured ribbing, and one of the mill workers (Zeke, Jerry thinks, but maybe Jackie) gives Jerry a punch in the shoulder. The guys want to play four on four, split Harry and Jerry up, but Harry says no. "Me and him, we're teammates. But we'll take on all comers," he says. The mill workers smirk at each other, at Harry, at Jerry, but they shrug, agree, toss the ball to Jerry and four of them back off to the sidelines while two of them drop down to play defense.
He and Harry aren't guards, don't really dribble much, but while the guys from the mill talk, talk constantly, the players on the sidelines coaching the players on the court, the players on the court talking to each other, Jerry and Harry just -- play. He's never had the urge to toss a pass up for somebody to grab above the rim and dunk, but he does, and Harry catches it like they've done it a million times.
They win the first game 20-10, and it wasn't as close as the score showed.
Second game they play it close to the basket, Jerry getting every rebound from every shot that Harry misses and the other way around, too, and they win 20-6. The mill guys are like every team they played this year, the more they lose, the louder they get, only now it's not hostile, the way it was in New Mexico and Seattle and Oklahoma. It's not angry-loud, frustrated-loud, hateful-loud. It's just loud, just loud the way people watching a good game get loud.
They win the third game 20-2, and the mill guys aren't even trying -- they're just letting Harry and Jerry do their thing, whipping passes from the top of the key, through the defenders, to the rim of the basket for easy put-backs. Jerry steals the ball from Big Boy and tosses it, no-look the way Billy Joe sometimes threw passes, behind his back to Harry, who lays it in easy as a slice of cherry pie.
He could have dunked, but he didn't, and Jerry knows they all learned a lot more than just about basketball this year, watching Harry make that shot.
When they're done, the mill guys crowd around them and slap Jerry's open palm as often as they slap Harry's, talk about listening to the game on the radio during the shift, want to know if Adolph Rupp looked like the devil up close.
"No," Harry says. "Just like a old sad white guy, like Hayseed's going to end up." But Jerry knows Harry well enough, now, like Missouri and Texas and the sound of a ball on a gravel driveway, to hear the joke in it, because if Harry didn't make a joke, things would get heavy the way they've avoided having things get heavy since the game.
The team's left that to the newspapers and the people in the stands. They just play basketball.
Three games and the mill guys were done; Zeke and Big Boy went off to their shift at the mill and the other four strolled back to Harry's mother's place with Harry and Jerry. Harry says, standing on the front steps, "There's half a pie."
The mill guys shrug. Jerry is suddenly, completely exhausted -- they left El Paso for Dallas at what seemed like the crack of dawn, and it took them more than twelve hours to get to Gary. The mill guys haven't scrutinized him, beyond whether or not he could play ball, but it feels like he's had eyes on his back all day beyond them.
Had eyes on his back every day since the newspapers noticed what they were doing, down in El Paso.
Nowhere in the country, this year, that he can hide, except on a basketball court in Gary, Indiana, with a couple of mill workers and a teammate he didn't like, didn't want, six months ago.
"Got a shift in the morning," Jackie says, and Harry claps his shoulder and jerks his head toward Jerry and then the door. Jerry goes inside and Harry makes a couple of minutes of small talk with the guys outside.
Jerry almost sits in the living room, but the light's still on in the kitchen, and he follows the light to find Mrs. Flournoy sitting at the table, hair in curlers, bathrobe on, cup of tea on the table.
"You and my Harry stay out of trouble?" she says.
Jerry sits down, says, "Yes, ma'am."
"You and my Harry beat those boys at their own game?" she says, sly and sure.
"Yes, ma'am," Jerry says, and he blushes when he says it and he can't tell why.
She stands up and puts the mug in the sink, stands with her back to Jerry for a long, quiet minute. "I knew sending him down to play for Coach Haskins was the right thing to do," she says, and Jerry doesn't know if she's speaking to him or to herself, so he doesn't say anything, but he understands.
It was about a lot more than basketball this year, to him, yeah, but to the black players, even more. To their families, even more.
"I'm glad you came to visit us," she says when she turns back to him, and pats him on the hand as she's leaving. "There's still pie, if you'd like it."
He sits at the table and listens to Harry talking to his mother in the living room. Harry lopes into the kitchen, opens the refrigerator and gets out the pie. "Couple of guys over to the mattress factory want to play us tomorrow," Harry says.
"Are we going to play every wannabe that Gary's got?" Jerry says.
Harry winks at him, slopping a huge slice of pie onto a plate and passing it over to Jerry. He cuts another for himself and says, "You bet your sweet white ass we are."
Jerry sleeps like the dead, and in the morning, Mrs. Flournoy feeds them pancakes and bacon and scrambled eggs and more coffee than Jerry's ever drunk in his life.
People stop them on the street to thank them, for what they did. Harry is gracious, and Jerry is embarrassed -- he didn't do anything except what was the right thing, in the end.
They win every game they play, and they play a lot. After all of them, the guys they play -- some white, some black, some Chicano -- all the guys shake their hands, thank them, even if the other guys haven't scored a point against them. Jerry doesn't think anyone's throwing games.
It's just that, after all this, he and Harry know each other better than most players.
Than most people.
Jerry Armstrong doesn't know anything about Gary, Indiana, but he knows a lot about basketball, about what the game means, and about teammates. About teams. About things that are bigger than himself.
author's notes: for my default team leader, on her birthday. so much water, fist pumps and throws to first, use of the hair knives, tossings of the littlest homo1, etc. i love you, bb. ash did beta duty. title from the music man, "gary, indiana" -- i mean, really, where else could i title this from?
1: don't ask. you don't want to know.