“9/11” by Jody Jenkins, Paris

Crime and Punishment October 26, 2011 12:23

topic: 9/11 medium: TEXT

as submitted for the “9/11” Open Call

PERHAPS IT’S NORMAL IN THE WAKE OF THE DEATH OF A friend you’ve known for so long – and I knew Jif longer than almost anyone in my life – to romanticize youth. So many emotions flood into the pool of your grief, especially after such a thing as the Trade Center attack, that it’s almost impossible to come to terms with them all. But one thing is for sure: Endings always lead back to beginnings. And in the search for simplicity, for some kind of clarity, I couldn’t help but return to the earliest moments of our friendship when we awkwardly roamed together, trying to decipher for ourselves just what it meant to be alive. Those days of innocence seem so far from me now, living as we do in a world full of painful complication.

When I look back at that time, I think that there was something that naturally caused us to gravitate towards each other and those things that would help us express the truths we sought in life, truths for which our mental vocabulary was necessarily limited because of our lack of experience or knowledge. Our understanding of the world was more physical than mental, more intuitive than learned, more immediate than introspective. Which is why now, after so many years of a writing life spent poring over interior landscapes for all the subtleties and contours of cause and effect, I can look over my shoulder and clearly see and appreciate the austere appeal of a wordless, physical world where our only challenge was a goal and our only weapons were a basketbal and the bodies we were born with.

With basketball we were in a perfect plane, a perfect state of grace where all the questions of life boiled down to the fluid geometry of arcs and feints and bursts of speed and where the only doubts that plagued us were those of our own talents and abilities. It was a democracy in the truest sense of the word, where all participated in perfecting the symmetry of life in a language that told of things for which there were no words. Of pains and loves, urges and griefs. It was a season in our lives without beginning or end, outside of time because it was more a subtext to our waking consciousness, something that was with us always but played more to the trembling finger on the trigger of our youth that was always waiting to be unleashed. With the simple flick of a ball into our hands, that inner stitch turned into an outer weave and with a headlong rush into the fury of action, all other things dissolved into insignificance.

Of course there were other sports as well. In the North Carolina fall when the corn was parched in the fields and the air smelled of ripe tobacco, we gave up our summer jobs and cleaned the crust out of our cleats and returned to the football field. We ran the hill side by side and sweated through windsprints and grass drills and though we truly loved football, it was more of an acquired taste for many who played, always something of a brutal test of us as men, of things we longed to know and to show about ourselves. It was more about pain than simple love and beauty and we were not gladiators by nature. Not the ones in our circle anyway. Though some of us hunted and some of us fished, I think that like football those things had more to do with a search for meaning than with any true taste for blood. And as a result our team was poor and the lessons we learned on the field were more about courage in the face of adversity than winning. Some of us played baseball as well, and Jif was the shotputter for the track team one year. I ran the 880 for two or three as did Jimmy, but we only did it because Coach Corbett said we couldn’t play football if we didn’t. The idea
was to keep us in as much shape as he could in the off season so for a lot of hormone driven males in the flush of spring, track was something of a disgruntled harbor. But basketball was an altogether different story.

The best loves in life are those that seek nothing in return and I think that basketball was our truest passion because there were no contingencies placed upon it. In the ultimate end of things winning and losing did not matter nearly as much as bearing witness to the ephemeral artistry of ourselves in a state of constant motion and struggle, of the silent brotherhood of sweat where some cosmic balance of greater and lesser forces were constantly at play. When Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader flickered across our irises for the first time in movie theaters, it seemed a simpler, timeless extension of what we already knew to be the true nature of the universe, growing up as we did in the shadow of Vietnam and Watergate, OPEC and the Oil Crisis and the Cold War. And though our struggles on the court might have been less Herculean in comparison, they always seemed to mime that something larger within us in a kind of physical free- verse Song of Ourselves written in stream of consciousness.

We lived in the days of David Thompson and Tommy Burleson, Mike Giminski, Phil Ford, Michael Jordan and James Worthy. Though only young men themselves, they were our talismen, icons we yearned to imulate as we shuffled across grassless lots, a curtain of golden dust rising up around our knees. We were always eager for it and needed no coach to coerce us to endless hours of practice. We needed no scorekeepers nor cheerleaders nor fans and we had none because most of us never took our skills out into any real arena. None except for Greg who had the wonderful good fortune to grow about two feet over a single summer. But for the rest of us who knew the limits of our talents or some other unspoken fear of full public exposure, basketball was and would always remain a cloistered thing, something between intimates played out in the fields of our dreams.

Because we had not yet learned to sublimate our passion for glory, we did the sports equivalent to a speedball by lowering the goal to eight feet and rushed and shouldered and banged our way into short jumpers, all the while called by the siren song of a dunk. I was never much of a dunker, even with a lower goal. And Jif at over six feet tall could drive it home. But Payne had mastered it. I
remember how so many evenings after I had finished my chores of working in the garden or cleaning or whatever they were, I would literally run off to Payne’s house on Zoo Road where Jif and I struggled to overcome him, his powerful legs full of speed, his level head under fire, his cool eyes searching for the spot even with a hand in his face as he broke out with a quick, probing thrust and then reversed himself in a manner reminiscent of Phil Ford and slammed the ball home. The image of his thick fingertips clutching the rim as he slammed it through is still branded in my brain like a curse and a glory that we three shared in so many of
the faded evenings of our youth.
Those who share a passion for anything quickly find their lives intertwined and over time basketball became more than simply each of us as individuals. It was the sum of all of us, the sum of all of who we were and all the beauty and secrets and yearnings of our lives. It was the back seat of Jif’s car when we double dated and Terry’s mom’s biscuits. It was Ronnie Matthew’s alcoholic step-dad and how Lawrence Shotwell brutally burned himself by throwing a flaming can of gasoline straight up into the air. It was the way Payne would point at you when he was mad and wanted the ball or stealing people’s pumpkins at Halloween and smashing them on the sidewalk. It was hanging out at Sarge’s gas station, sitting on the curb drinking fifteen-cent Cokes and talking about God or Phillip Allen burning holes in his arm with cigarettes to show how tough he was. It was the heat in the summer and the dogs lazing in the dirt road and the smell of the dried earth being replenished by rain. It was the day young Jackie Wall died of a heart attack in my arms in the parking lot of William R. Davie Middle School and how that evening I rode my bike out to the airbase and shot hoops alone in the empty gym, trying to find a proper expression for all that I didn’t know how to feel. It was Greg’s always sane counsel and my mother’s mental illness, Jimmy’s Dad and Jif’s painful honesty when he told me he had been lying to himself all along about his mother’s death when he knew it was suicide. It was all those things we were and all those things we would become,
rolled together and played out on a court, slowly uncoiling themselves inside of us. It was a way of knowing and being known. It was acceptance. It was our lover and our shrink, long before we ever knew how much we would need either of them.

I think the beginning of the end of our purest selves began one late Fall day when Payne showed up with his football helmet laced through his shoulder pads, carrying the whole rig by the face mask. It was usually a sign that your day was done but as practice had just begun and everyone was in their gear going through drills, we wondered what it could mean. We watched as he walked up slowly with a forlorn look in his eyes and his head cocked slightly to the side as if he had just been insulted and was trying to find the composure to put it to words. “I gotta go to work,” he said in a weighty monotone. I think the power of times like those are the unanswered questions, the bridges that have been burned without ever seeing the smoke or knowing how or why, the ashes blown from the ashpots by a wind we recognize but do not know how to call its name. For all of us the idea of the cotton mill conjured a grave world of grown men with faded dreams. And though we all had family or friends who worked there, that world with little room for illusions was no place for one of ours. Even then, among those of us who prided ourselves on what little manhood we
embodied, it seemed that he was too young to go. But he was going to be a daddy and he was going to need real money. And as he walked away and climbed into that long, green Mercury that he always drove with the heel of one hand, we said goodbye to something in ourselves that we knew we would never see again.

In time all of us would spin away to our different destinies in the centrifuge of life. Jif and Terry and I went away to Atlantic Christian and then later I transferred to Carolina with Jimmy and Greg. It seemed like no time before Greg was gone to Arizona and Jimmy to New York and Jif to Louisville. I worked newspapers in Alabama and North Carolina for a while and then quit to hobo across the country. Jif was raising a family and I was “being here now” in a lot of different places. And even Payne had moved off somewhere in the night of our seperateness and wound up in Georgia. There was a long stretch when we saw each other only sporadically and in the beginning ball was still as much a part of it all as we could keep it. But it was a bit like trying to nurture a long distance love. As we grew older there wasn’t the same spark, the same urge for the break. Not so much because our love for it had waned but because our lives had demanded certain disciplines that we could no longer drop at a moment’s notice. And though the reflex grew dim the ache was always there, the urge toward that language of familiarity and symmetry among us. So much so that when I saw Jif in Florida after many years apart, we wound up on the court at my mother-in-law’s, shooting and driving and insulting each other the way old friends do when they have come home.

While he was living in Florida and then later in Atlanta, Jif used to often say that we should all get together again. Have a reunion of those of us that were closest and just go off and do something together. Down to a resort on the Gulf Shores or Key West or somewhere like that. Just the guys. Whenever he mentioned it, he seemed nostaligic for something basic we had shared in our
youth and had somehow lost over time. And though we liked the idea and paid lip service to it, we were scattered fairly far and wide enough with the kind of obligations that made it seem like something that required the kind of concentration and money we could only really manage to get to later. It seemed so strange that later was the Trade Center attacks and the reason was his
memorial service.

I think the day Jif died, some of our youth died with him. As did some of America’s. And so I mourned not only the loss of a friend and many others I did not know, but the passing of a time in my life that we shared that I know we can never revisit in the same way again, with the same innocence and the same sometimes dumbstruck awe at those creatures that flitted recklessly across the
stage of time to one day become us. That memory is tinged with a pain that will always be there, for all of us. In an instant we were propelled into the middle age of our existence where too many illusions are threadbare. But it’s what we have
and we must get on with it.

A Bosnian doctor in the town of Zenica once told me that it was futile to look for meaning in such things as happened on September 11th. After four years of war in which he had seen his once civil country torn apart and so many of his friends killed, he still had not been able to find a true logic behind it all. “There is no logic to the absurd,” he said, suggesting that in the end the only protest that you could lodge against it was to live your life, to turn your back on the fears that might otherwise give others power over you. And I think he’s right. What happened to Jif such a short time ago is something we will simply have to endure until the time comes when we can finally let it go. Until we can stop trying to find some rationale in it because there is none. But until then we must honor his memory by living our lives without hesitation and with as much joy as we can muster, moving on when we can while never forgetting a friend who is with us no more but will always be for those who knew and loved him.

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