The Basketball Game
The sun was still a few hours from setting in the early evening sky as the players once again began to appear like ants at a picnic. One at first, then a few more. And then several more until one end of the court was full of men shooting basketballs and jabbering at one another without really saying much of anything.
"Hey, what's up?"
Jack liked playing ball here once in a while. It was only a couple of miles from the house, and the guys were all at about his skill level, none much better nor much worse, at least as far as handling the ball or shooting or whatever. Sure, some of the guys were still kids and so they sometimes would hot dog it to show how much of a jock they still were. Jack himself had quit doing that years ago, but by and large he still felt comfortable here. He wasn't a regular by any means, but regular enough that most of the players at least recognized his face when he showed up.
Jack had the kind of cockiness that often results from athletic achievement, a person who had heard the roar of the crowd as he scored touchdowns ball for his team, someone who had gotten got used to the adulation, and who came to believe that he deserved it. That latter attitude usually earned him enough respect among the other players that they accepted him as one of their own, even if he was more of a liability than an asset these days. Jack was confident playing sports, though outside of that sports environment he was noticeably more tentative and more dependent on those around him.
Jack was, in fact, a former running back at Lincoln High, and still carried himself with an athlete's swagger. Chin up. Jaw out. Straight back. The kind of guy that maybe didn't have it all going on upstairs, but never quite realized that he didn't. He thought he was just as smart as the next guy, and perhaps more importantly to his way of thinking, just as tough, at least while he was playing sports. In many cases his self-confidence carried the day for him when by all rights he really had no business being on the same field or the same court as the guys against whom he was competing. People respond to self-confidence. Confident people are leaders. They know what they're doing more than the rest of us, or at least they create the impression that they do, which is almost as good.
Jack was one of those people in his public and athletic life. He enjoyed being in the limelight and having his day in the sun. And although he never possessed the size and speed to play at the college level, he was good enough to have made a name for himself locally. There was no doubt about that. All the guys in town knew Jack. Everyone remembered the time when he scored those four touchdowns that led Lincoln to the city title over Lincoln's arch-rival, undefeated and "unbeatable" Roosevelt High.
He did it, though. Jack beat them -- all by himself, or so it seemed. That's at least how it came to be remembered by most. Of course he did have a whole team on his side who had blocked for him on offense, and of course they threw passes to other receivers and helped move the ball down the field. There also were the teammates on defense who kept the game close while the offense wasn't on the field.
But it was Jack who scored the four big touchdowns and got most of the credit for the win, and it was Jack who would forever be remembered as the game's hero. Roosevelt just couldn't stop him. It was the game of his life and even as it was unfolding before him, Jack knew that it was. He sensed that he was more like an actor on life's bigger stage rather than simply being a football player in a high school football game. He knew that his prospects of playing at the next level were slim and none, and that the Roosevelt game was very likely to be one of his last, if not the last. It turned out that in fact the Roosevelt game was his last, and he had made the most of it. It was something he would carry with him forever.
After high school, Jack married his high school sweetheart, Linda, and spent a few years at odd jobs. After a well-placed reference or two earned him some business contacts who remembered his athletic exploits, Jack parlayed that opening into a job as an insurance salesman. As it turned out he wasn't wildly successful at selling insurance. But he became successful enough that he didn't need and didn't want to look for another line of work. He was placated if not happy.
Socially it was a similar story. On the days when his wife hadn't planned some kind of social engagement, he spent his free time playing poker and golf a couple of times a month with some old friends, ones who had stuck around after high school and never felt the need to move away, either. He went out with the boys a few times a month for a few beers, too and played basketball once in a great while at the beach, like today.
Years of sitting behind a desk pushing insurance papers, and years of infrequent, mild exercise hadn't done much for Jack athletically. While he periodically thought about getting back into a disciplined workout regimen, those thoughts never really translated into anything meaningful. He just had too many things going on these days, too many social commitments, too many other things that just took precedence. Poker every other Friday. Dinner with the Gerber's once a month. Bowling once a week, too. Dinner at the Hansen's. Most times he was just too tired. Thank god he and Linda had never had kids. He didn't know how other people did it, having to chase them around and arrange for their activities and whatever.
"Parents with kids must never get out of the house at all," Jack thought to himself on many occasions over the years.
In some years Jack managed to maintain his weight or even lost a few pounds. But that was the exception rather than the rule. More often he'd put on a small but noticeable few pounds here and there. Nothing particularly alarming if you saw him every day, but enough. Five one year, eight more the next. In a bad year, ten or even a little more. Nothing that couldn't be lost if he just put his mind to it and decided to get back in shape.
Jack's problem was that he never did. Those extra few pounds here and there seemed to always stick with him, despite his periodic promises to himself that they would come off. Each year he'd put on a few and his clothes would get just a little more tight and a little more snug, to be followed by a few more the next year, and a few more the year after that. Every couple of years he made the trek down to the men's store to order new suits, and the group that he had most recently outgrown started their inexorable journey to the back of his closet, there to sit for several years collecting dust before their ultimate but eventual demise to Goodwill or the Salvation Army.
Over the years, despite a lot of lip service and his best intentions, Jack had built a hefty midsection on his five foot nine inch frame. He had become genuinely fat now, much bigger and much further out of shape than he would ever have imagined possible, if he had ever thought about it at all. Like many men, his extra weight accumulated around his gut, though the rest of his body softened up and expanded quite a bit as well. Soft and extremely pliable, his was the kind of fat, some might call it flab, that would give way and envelop a probing digit with the slightest pressure, though he had accumulated it in such hefty proportions that he could no longer reasonably called merely "flabby."
As he stood under the backboard shooting the breeze with his compatriots, his gray t-shirt bulged at his sides where his spare tire demanded to be noticed. Beer and pretzels at the bowling alley once a week. Sloping outwards from just beneath his chest, his convex belly extended outwards towards its apex near his navel, creating stretch marks in his shirt just above his love handles. Poker night nachos and deli sandwiches. Belly fat spilled over the entire width of his waistband and sides despite the t-shirt being tucked into his shorts. Chicken wings and beer with the boys.
After the shoot around was several minutes old, the players chose sides for a pick-up game. Even when he was younger, Jack's shortness of stature had caused him to play the guard position, and today was no different. His team decided that it would be "skins" today, and so Jack walked towards the sidelines and lifted his shirt about a third of the way up his torso to discard it before game time, freeing his belly from the shirt that had been tucked into his shorts underneath, and the oversized roll of belly fat quickly emerged and spilled over his waistband. Now unrestricted, the drop descended immediately, clearly bounced upon reaching its nadir, and then rippled for a few seconds before coming to a momentary rest.
As he repositioned his hands to grab the shirt at his sides and lift it the rest of the way over his head, the covered upper portion of his torso remained hidden underneath a t-shirt that was straining and pulled taut with stretch. The lower belly extended further away from his body than the part still covered underneath the shirt, suggesting without much doubt what was to come.
Jack wriggled the shirt over his head completely and all the way off. As he did, what had almost seemed to be separate parts of his body - the love handles, the overhang, the upper belly - now appeared as they really were: all part of one very large and very soft accumulation of fat that now defined his body in a much different way than had been the case during his football years.
The soft overhang that first appeared from under his shirt was now weighed down and pinned firmly against his shorts by the rest of his soft, well-fattened belly. Far from being a love handle or spare tire that was separate and different from the rest of him, it was clear now that the overhang was just the lowest section of a much larger, much fatter belly than what it seemed to be with his t-shirt on. The crease that separated his upper torso from his lower just above his love handles now extended around his sides and across a considerable portion of his back as well. The two creases appeared as though they might have converged in the middle had it not been for his spine getting in the way.
In the sun his smooth white complexion created the appearance more like that of a baby's skin that that of a man, and the absence of chest hair added to that image. Heredity had denied him of any substantial amounts of melanin, so no matter what time of year it was, and no matter how much sun he got, his skin remained a very fair shade of white. Even as a kid when he was out in the sun for several hours a day all summer long, he would never tan the way other kids did. This earned him the nickname "Casper" from his playmates.
After tossing his shirt to the ground Jack had only his white sport socks and Nike Air Jordan basketball sneakers on, along with his XXL red stretchy gym shorts. These had the deep pockets that he really liked, and the "B.U.M. equipment" logo emblazoned on the left thigh. He used to like the style that had the drawstring waist and the deep pockets, but switched a few years ago to the elastic waist at his wife's suggestion. These felt much more comfortable to him now, less restrictive. But now another thought momentarily flashed across his mind.
"Should I hike them up around my waist, or leave them where they are?" he thought to himself. "I'm thinking they really should be up higher. But that doesn't look right and it's uncomfortable. The waistband digs into my stomach and cuts my belly in half. But if I leave them underneath, my whole belly will be exposed. And with my light skin tone, I don't know.... it might make me look heavy. I guess I'll just leave them underneath for now and see how it goes. More comfortable that way. Besides, a lot of guys my age have a little bit of a belly. It's unrealistic to think that I'm going to look like a kid forever. I'm a mature, grown man now."
As Jack walked away from the aluminum courtside stands and towards mid-court, his chubby thighs slapped together and his belly jiggled and bounced with each step. He was determined not to waddle, but nevertheless had to defer in part to the demands of his more mature body. He was still an athlete, though. He was sure of it.
Before tip-off he bent over to stretch his body and prepare for the game. After a brief visit to just a few degrees past vertical, he stood back up straight to take a deep breath and crane his neck in a three hundred and sixty degree motion. He completed the routine by raising his arms over his head and stretching, leaning slightly to each side in alternating succession. As he leaned, the creases on his sides deepened and folded inwards, and then receded somewhat as he stood back up straight again. He hiked his shorts again, the waistband still buried underneath the drop of his belly.
"Muscles just aren't as limber as they were years ago. Someday these kids will be in the same boat. You need to stretch them out," he assured himself.
Linda arrived a little before 7:00. Jack had left a voice mail for her at her office number, and she decided to walk to the court a few blocks away after a long day. A beauty queen when they first met, the years hadn't done much to diminish Linda's appearance. Slim and attractive with delicate features, she appeared very much the same as she did when she and Jack first met seventeen years ago: thin and attractive with a full head of shoulder length dark brown hair, with only the hint of a few lines starting to appear on her face. If anything, she looked better now in her early thirties than she did in her teens, as the years had added some very attractive curves to her hips and bust, but seemingly nothing else. Fifteen years ago she looked like a girl. Now she looked like a woman, and a voluptuous one at that.
They were the perfect couple, Jack and Linda. When they married, it seemed like a fairy tale come true -- a hometown version of Prince Charles and Princess Diana. Jack and Linda. Linda and Jack. His athleticism and charisma, her natural beauty. They would go a long way together, most people thought. The sky was the limit. How could they not succeed? They had everything going for them. Good looks. Intelligence. Confidence. Connections.
Few could have predicted, though, that it would be Linda, not Jack, would turn out to be the high achiever of the two. It was just odd. She seemed intelligent enough in her own right, but it just wasn't supposed to happen that way. Jack was supposed to be the successful executive some day. She was supposed to be the beautiful wife turned soccer mom that every football star is supposed to marry some day. That was supposed to be the script.
But over the years it was Linda who displayed the leadership potential and whose career took off. She was the one who was eventually promoted into management, and then a few levels higher into middle management. She was the one who felt comfortable delivering speeches and giving presentations to the Board of Directors, and who developed confidence and a charismatic personality.
Arriving shortly after the game began, Linda stopped at the end of the bleachers and gracefully placed her high heel on the footrest for the second row of seats, lifted herself upwards, and sat down. She smiled her public smile and acknowledged a few neighbors' faces in the small crowd. She watched a few possessions, smiled briefly to herself as she saw Jack struggling, and then remembered where she was. Turning from the game, she began talking to another woman in the stands, and they chatted for several minutes about nothing in particular.
Soon the game was over, and by the time Jack said his good-byes, Linda was waiting for him in the BMW. She drove while he sat in the passenger seat with a towel wiping his face, neck and arms. After a few minor pleasantries, she became silent in a way that he came to know as trouble, and his heart sank ever so slightly. After a few uncomfortable moments, he tried to break the ice.
"So, how was your day today, sweetheart?"
"Fine", she replied icily.
"Anything interesting happen?"
"Oh, uh huh."
His voice trailed off and he had very little to say. He never was very good at reading her, nor at dealing with conflict. He usually tried to avoid conflict when it arose, and hoped that whatever the issue was would eventually disappear on its own. Sometimes it did. Most times not.
Tonight he didn't quite know why he felt weird, or what he had done wrong, but he was uncomfortable and he knew that she was angry at him. The best thing to do, he thought, was to simply to let her bring it up, whatever it was. She always did. And so it went for several more minutes as the two partners stared out through the front windshield. Traffic was heavy, and it seemed to him like every stop light was red.
"Don't they ever coordinate these damned things?" he thought to himself, "It's still rush hour, for Christ's sake!"
Still Linda remained silent. He was hoping she would at least say something to let him know what the issue was. Was he supposed to be a mind reader, or what? Finally after what seemed like several minutes, she spoke up.
"I had plans for us to go out to dinner tonight. I guess we can forget about that now."
"Thank God she finally said something!" he thought to himself. "At least now I know what the issue is."
"We can still go, sweetheart," he said, " if that's what you really want. It's only 7:30."
"I'm not in the mood anymore. Besides, you're sweating like a pig and it will take you forever to get ready after we get home."
"I hate it when you don't tell me about things that affect me."
"What do you mean? What did I do that affected you, and why are you so upset?"
"You made plans for basketball without telling me, that's what you did. All I know is that I get back to my office after a day from hell and there's a message from you saying you're going to play basketball like some kind of adolescent schoolboy."
"Adolescent schoolboy?" he thought. "Where'd that one come from?"
"I just heard that some of the guys were playing, and I thought I would, too. What's the big deal?" he replied.
"The big deal is that you stomped all over my plans without saying anything, and without even caring about whether or not I had anything going on. That's what the big deal is! You seem to forget that you have a wife sometimes, Jack. Don't I matter to you?"
"Well, I .... of course you do, honey. Of course you do.", he replied in a slightly apologetic tone.
Quickly pressing her advantage, Linda continued. "But you went ahead and made plans without telling me or asking me anyway? Nice, Jack-ass. Real nice."
"I... I just..."
Jack genuinely didn't know what to say when his wife openly confronted him like this. He knew he loved her, and he tried as much as he could to make her happy. He became confused when she would challenge him like this, and he often retreated into a shell and said nothing, while putting himself through a sort of mental obstacle course.
"I know I'm right. Or at least I think I'm right. But maybe she has a point. Maybe I should have called her first. If I make an issue out of this, she'll be pissed for the rest of the night. God, that'll suck big time. Worse, I can probably forget getting laid tonight. God, she looks so hot tonight."
Linda knew Jack very well, perhaps better than he knew himself. She knew that he argued with himself without saying what he was thinking. She also knew that if she became assertive with him, he would eventually buckle and do what she wanted. He always did. She liked it that way, and that's the way she wanted to keep him. She liked being in control, especially on a subject as important as this one, and she wasn't about to let him change that. And somehow she always managed to resolve the conflict in her favor in such a way as to make it seem innocuous from Jack's perspective.
"So how about not making plans like this in the future until you talk to me first, OK? That way we'll be on the same page and everyone is happy. "
"OK, I guess. I just didn't think it was going to be that big of a deal."
"Well, it was a big deal, and it is a big deal. I don't want to live my life not knowing whether I can make dinner plans because you're out gallivanting around playing a game with some of your buddies who never outgrew their adolescence."
"OK, OK. I guess you're right."
As she said those words, they slowed and stopped at yet another stoplight.
"Good, I'm glad we got that settled," Linda concluded, as she leaned over to offer Jack a kiss. Relieved that the current struggle was over, he kissed her back. The light turned green as Linda started sitting back up and moving back over behind the wheel. Her right hand patted his belly while her left hand gripped the wheel and steered though the intersection.
"You must be hungry," she queried, her tone suddenly much more pleasant.
"Yeah," came the reply from the face being wiped again by the towel.
While his eyes were still hidden behind the towel, Linda glanced down at the seat belt digging into her husband's sweat-covered, overgrown waistline, and her lips curled upwards slightly at their ends. She turned her eyes back to the road and steered the car to the right just after the light, pulling around through the drive through lane and stopping at the menu board. A few seconds later a voice spoke up.
"Welcome to McDonald's. May I take your order?"
"Yes. I'd like two double cheeseburger value meals, and two strawberry shakes. Also, a grilled chicken value meal, and no mayo on the chicken meal. That's no mayo, got it?"
"That's two double cheeseburger value meals, a strawberry shake, a Chicken McGrill meal, no mayo. Is that correct?"
"No, I said two strawberry shakes," Linda snapped in an exasperated tone.
"Got it, ma'am," came the metallic reply. "And what would you like to drink with that Chicken McGrill value meal?"
"A diet Coke or diet Pepsi or whatever."
"Diet coke. Is that OK?"
"Will that be it, then, ma'am?"
"And super size those two cheeseburger meals."
"OK, so that's two super-sized double cheeseburger value meals, two strawberry shakes, a Chicken McGrill meal, no mayo, and a diet Coke. Is that correct?"
"Thank you, ma'am. Your total comes to $17.04. Please pull up to the second window."