Palo Alto Weekly 16th Annual Short Story Contest
by David Fromm
"You plowing tonight, Chick?" Don Patella looked out the steamed window of the Snack Chalet at Chickies truck, looming ponderously at the curb, and then turned back to the grill. His apron, clean and white when the day began and he flipped pancakes for Chickie and the other mill workers, was now spotted with slick thumbprints. "Or going down to the game?"
Chickie sat at the counter and searched for his reflection in the Formica. "Both, I think." He spun idly on the stool, half left and back half right. "Ive got to salt the parking lot before it ends, but Ill probably catch the first half."
Patella flipped Chickies hamburger, and the flat griddle sizzled. Above it, a small chalkboard listed the weeks specials Wednesday, meat loaf, Friday, split pea soup. How was it, Chickie sometimes wondered, that the same plain surface could turn out pancakes and sausages and cheeseburgers in the same hour? How was it that their flavors didnt gradually merge over the course of the day? And would he mind if they did?
"Try to make it," Patella said, sliding a plate across the counter. Hed been going to the games for twenty years. Now, his son Ben was the starting small forward at the high school, and the glass panels of the Chalets donut case were papered with the box scores and headlines from the Millionaires current and surprising season. "Its a big game."
Snow fell quietly on Chickie when he stepped out of the Chalet, like confetti. He shook his collar down and checked his watch. Six-thirty, and the sidewalks of downtown Leonard were already empty. By February, the tourists were months gone, taking their easy dollars back to Boston and New York, and locals like Chickie had the lonely run of the Leonard streets. Even the holiday crowd home on break, visiting parents had vanished, returned to school or jobs in distant cities. Chickie was almost glad. The Heritage was a lot quieter and less predatory, and he didnt miss the feigned interest, the concealed despair, that seasoned each high volume conversation from July to the New Year. Chickies breath floated softly in the night air and beclouded the moon.
He hopped into the cab and thought about Ben Patellas game, not so much the one tonight as the way Ben played it. Ben and some of the other high school players occasionally came to play in the Sunday night pickup games at the elementary school. Good shooter, Chickie remembered, but not much of a handle. Even at twenty-eight, Chickie could cross the kid up, but then Chickie could still cross most people up. Seemed like a nice kid, though. The truck rumbled to life and headed east onto Housatonic Street, the snowfall looking like static in his headlights.
The Leonard Millionaires played basketball in an old gym adjacent to the high school. Chickie pulled into the parking lot just before seven p.m., rolling over the feeble curb and sliding plow-first into a snowbank. He cut the engine and sat in the darkness of the cab, surveying the full lot. Red taillights shone off of plumes of exhaust, lighting up the parking lot like a festival. The visitors bus, chartered in a city sixty miles east, idled by the entry to the gym. A group of smokers lingered in the night air by the doors. Walking through the lot, Chickie startled three sophomores passing a furtive beer across the seats of a Dodge Ram.
At the front door, Chickie kicked his boots free of salt and sand and ice. Selma Rozack, the Vice Principal, sold him a ticket for five dollars as the jayvee kids milled around the concession stand. She smiled at Chickie.
"Nice to see you, William," she said, patting his hand. "Where have you been hiding yourself?"
Chickie smiled at her. "Oh, you know, just working for the state, I guess."
"Well, Im glad you made it to the big game," Selma said. "Western Mass finals, can you believe it?"
"Guess not," Chickie said as he slid through her hands and into the gilded foyer of the gymnasium. "Tell Principal Panetti I said hello."
The gym itself was small and smelled like old sweat and laundry. Chickie high-stepped his way up into the crowded retractable stands. Above him, the high schools rectangular sports banners hung like tapestries from the rafters, skiing and cross-country predominant with the occasional girls soccer southern division championship. Against the far wall, on a diagonal vector from Chickie, hung one that read "Leonard Millionaires 1991 Division III State Finalists Boys Basketball." Chickie looked at it for a long second, and felt someone grab his leg.
Chickie looked down at a man and a woman. The womans blonde hair fell in tendrils into the hood of a fleece pullover. The man wore jeans and a nylon jacket in the maroon and gold of the Millionaires and smiled like he knew Chickie. "Whats going on, Chick?" he said.
Chickie played along, even though he wasnt good at it. "Not much. Whats going on with you?"
"Aww, you know, just working, I guess. Its great to see you." The mans investment in their uncredited friendship worried Chickie a little, and he searched his memory, to no avail, for clues. "I saw you looking over at that banner. This is the biggest game in this gym since that one, huh? Sit down here with us."
Somewhat uneasily, Chickie took a seat next to the woman. She smiled at him as the teams came out of the locker rooms and threaded in eager lines across the court. "Hi," he said, "Im Chickie Wheelan."
"I know," she said. "You went to high school with my brother."
"This is Katie Berenson, Chick," the man said, putting his arm around her. "Paul Berensons little sister. Remember Paul? He was on that team with you, right? He was the center?"
"Sure," Chickie said, and thought about Paul Berensons sister. She was a freshman when Paul and Chickie graduated. Much smaller then. Chickie thought he remembered that she played ball too, and had maybe played in college somewhere. "Pauls a good guy. Whats he doing now?"
"Hes a doctor," Katie Berenson said. "He and his wife live in New York." She had to twist on the bench to talk to him, and her hair brushed on his cheek. It felt cool and particular like fiber optics. She paused, looking around the gym, and then said, "I havent sat in these stands since I used to come watch his games."
The Millionaires ran two-line lay-ups on the near side of the court. They had a couple of athletes, who cut through the lane seamlessly and finished with both hands. Chickie watched them, and tried to resist the urge to twitch. Back in 1991, Chickie had hands like weeds and legs that were spring-loaded. He was the point guard, the only real star, on the Millionaire team that went all the way to the State finals. The game was held on this same Leonard court, and Chickie remembered the fans being so thick together that they looked like barnacles around the courts shiny hull. It was the best and last game of Chickies high school career. Chickie could still feel the waves of noise rolling through the gym as he held the ball, down one with fifteen seconds left, for the last shot. He had already put up 34 points, the last seven on foul shots with under a minute on the clock, and the next day the Boston Globe would say he was playing a different game than the other nine guys on the court. In that moment, as he waited at mid-court with the seconds draining away, Chickie had felt in perfect focus. Gathering the noise, he took the crowd and the Millionaires and the opposing team into his chest and held them there, reverberating, inside him. Then, with six seconds on the clock, he penetrated, leaving his own man flat-footed at the three-point line and drawing two defenders before whipping a pass under their arms to Paul Berenson, his astonished and unguarded center. The moment he threw it, Chickie knew that it was the kind of pass that was so good, it was bad, and he watched the ball skate through Berensons arms and out of bounds.
People still talked about it, and asked him why he didnt take the shot.
At mid-court, Ben Patella and the rest of the Millionaires starters circled their opponents as a ref tossed up the jump ball. Immediately the air filled with the squeak of sneakers and the giddy claps of underclassmen. The Millionaires, still running the flex and pressing after made baskets, jumped out to an early lead. Ten years and the same offense, Chickie marveled. He could walk out of the stands and run it without a hitch. Ben Patella hit two three-pointers and slapped his palms against the floor. Across the gym, Chickie spotted his former coach, Fred LaGarce, hunched forward with his fingers to his lips, like Chickie wrapped in the blanket of some temporary hegira. Next to LaGarce, Don Patella tracked the arc of his sons jump shot through the wide eye of a videocamera.
The crowd roared as a Millionaire guard stole the ball at half court and sailed in for a layup. For a moment, it looked like the Millionaires might run away with the game. But their opponents, thick young men from a suburb of Springfield called Monast, gathered themselves, and when the big Monast center stepped up to block a shot and then ran the court to finish a break with a dunk, Chickie watched the way he took the crowd and his teammates and the Millionaires into his chest and held them all there. By halftime, Monast had taken a five-point lead and their small pack of imported fans howled like jackals.
The clock behind the basket read eight thirty, and Chickie made his way into the foyer with the crowd. By the mens room, Don Patella and Fred LaGarce argued about the relative stagnancy of the Millionaire offense. Selma Rozack sold brownies at the concession stand to eighth-graders. The man whose name Chickie didnt know saw him and said, "were all going over to the Heritage afterwards. You should meet us there."
"Maybe," Chickie said, looking around at faces red and breathy. The milling slowed, and for a moment the crowd seemed fixed in amber, arrested in a kind of civic emotional permanence that Chickie, having played a role in, couldnt now disown. He turned to the exit and began to walk to his truck.
"Hey," Katie Berenson said, and stepped out of the foyer. "Do you guys still play pickup ball on Sunday nights?"
She joined Chickie under a street lamp, into whose still halo the falling snow seemed to burst. "Uh, yeah," he said. "Are you around?"
"I live here now. My law firm has a local office, and they had an opening." Outside the gym, the night was so cold and dark it seemed to shine, and Katie Berensons teeth began to chatter. She held her arms tight against her body and bounced up and down slightly. "Do you guys let girls play?" She smiled, like she was half-expecting to be denied, and said "dont worry, Ive got better hands than my brother."
Chickie dug his hands into his pockets and grinned. "What do you mean?"
"Oh, you know," she shrugged. "My brother always felt bad about that pass in the State finals. He thought you were going to shoot. We all did. I think you fooled everyone."
Chickie looked at the snow caked to his boots. "Im tricky."
"Yeah. Well, it sure was a pretty pass."
Inside, the buzzer for the second half sounded. Katie Berenson looked back into the gym and stamped her feet. "So, maybe Ill see you on Sunday?" She fixed him with a look that was somehow blank and bold at the same time. Her lips trembled in the cold, and her eyes sparkled.
"Yeah." Chickie shifted in his boots, then grinned at her. "Thatd be cool."
She smiled wide. They stood for a second, grinning in the night air, and then she bounced back into the crowd.
Chickie climbed into his truck and drove it over to the entrance of the gym. He rolled down the windows and listened to the squeak of the sneakers and the rushes of applause. It was a hell of a pass, Chickie thought. Magical. The big blade dropped to the pavement, and as the second half raged on in the gym, Chickie plowed the lanes of the silent lot, pushing a wave of snow. Maybe hed throw one like it on Sunday, he thought.
The snow had stopped, and he turned the truck out of the parking lot and headed back into town. Behind him, salt crystals glistened in the streetlamps like the tail of a meandering comet.
From the judges
Tom Parker: Bittersweet, touching and complex, yet simply
told, "Millionaire" convincingly evokes ChickieWheelan's
feelings of loss, failure and longing. This is a sad, wonderful
and eminently believable story, economically rendered and packing
a powerful punch.
Get the day's top headlines from Palo Alto Online sent to your inbox in the Express newsletter.