Issue > Fiction
Jim Ray Daniels

Jim Ray Daniels

Jim Ray Daniels is the author of five collections of short fiction, including, most recently, Eight Mile High (Michigan State University Press), a Michigan Notable Book and finalist for the Paterson Fiction Prize. His sixth book of stories, The Perp Walk, will be published in 2019. He is the Thomas Stockham Baker University Professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University.

The Spirit Award


To say Jack was disappointed was to say it looks like it might rain while it was already streaming off the brim of your new baseball hat. He walked to his father's car, trailing him by a good six feet. His father always walked fast, but tonight it was as if he had completely forgotten he wasn't alone, that he believed he'd done his duty and was dismissed from further obligation when in fact he'd completely blown off his duty, which was to go to Jack's eighth grade sports banquet, to be The Father for a few minutes, to stand and joke with other proud fathers. He'd arrived for the closing remarks at the end, just in time to take Jack home for the weekend.

From behind, Jack watched his father's stiff long-legged walk, the tight shoulders and thick neck of a former athlete. For someone always in a hurry, his father had sure been showing up late a lot, or not showing up at all. "Dad, wait up," he wanted to say. Or, simply "Dad." To get him to stop. To wait. Forced into frantic half-running, trying to keep up, Jack did a full frontal onto the sidewalk, scraping both hands. When he was younger, he could've started wailing, and his father would have come back and lifted him into his arms.

His mother had dropped him off—Jack didn't even know where his father had parked. His father had missed the Spirit Award, so he couldn't share his son's disappointment. What was the hurry? What would they do back at his new apartment but watch TV? His father had a new girlfriend—Missy or Misty. Jack understood that. His father had moved out just three months ago, breaking up his second family—he'd had two kids with his first wife. The new girlfriend—a younger clone of his mother—creeped Jack out. Same long black hair, same angular face. His mother's was still twisted into the tight pain of rage. Jack had felt guilty relief when she'd dropped him off.

His stepsisters from his father's first marriage now spent all their time with their own mother, though they'd had a bedroom to share at Jack's house. Now that their father had moved out, why would the girls stay there, related to no one, no longer step-anything? Everything he'd been leaning on seemed to be toppling over. It was all too fucking confusing for an eighth grader. Maybe he didn't get the Spirit Award for thinking things like that. Fuck, fuck, fucking fuck. He balled up the flimsy certificate in his hand. The one everyone received simply for being on the team. His name was on it, so he couldn't toss it in the street so close to school. Someone might retrieve it. Someone might try to give it back.

*

The Spirit Award was given to the player who was kindest, most unselfish, who contributed the most to team spirit. The consolation prize for benchwarmers—a throwaway award, but Jack had been counting on it. The thought of it got him through the last half of the season when the coach started using more sixth and seventh graders off the bench to get ready for next year.

Last year, Albert Cooper got the Spirit Award. Albert had sat next to Jack on the bench, providing a running commentary on the life of Albert Cooper, future superstar. Albert rarely noticed what was happening on the court. Overweight and slow, he had deluded himself into thinking he was one of the guys, that the only reason he never managed to get on the court was that the coach was saving him for the right moment. Albert had gone on to St. Joe's, the top sports high school in Western Pennsylvania, where he hadn't even made the team. How did he get that award, Jack wondered. Were his parents big donors?

The Wallingford School had a no-cut policy, but that didn't mean everyone played. Jack's problem was that he was short, but played tall. He had little ball-handling skill. An intense player, he'd been good at getting rebounds until everyone else had their growth spurts. Coach Reynolds called him a throwback. Coach Reynolds always praised his hustle. Coach Reynolds had betrayed him, just like his father.

*

"Now, I'd like to present this year's Spirit Award. We had a great group of kids this year, and it was a hard call. This young man never missed a practice. He worked hard day in and day out. He was always there cheering his teammates on. Terry, c'mon up here. Terry Christopher."

Jack slumped in the stiff wooden folding chair so that it cut into his back. He put a hand to his forehead and rubbed it fiercely. The other boys were sitting with at least one parent. Some even had a grandparent or two. Jack sat at a table with Artie Trappelli's family. He heard a groan from some of the other players, a slight hesitation before polite applause. Terry never missed a practice because his dad was assistant coach. He had gotten more playing time than he deserved all season. Spirit, my ass, thought Jack. Coach Christopher had to know his son didn't deserve the award. Terry had told Jack many times that he wanted to quit the team but his father wouldn't let him.

While the other awards were being given out, Jack wolfed down three hotdogs and two bags of chips, staring at the cheap paper plate in front of him, that clock face without hands. He wanted to make himself sick. He'd stopped looking for his father.

Artie Trapelli smacked him in the back of the head as he walked past at the end of the banquet—Artie, the MVP, high scorer. What did that smack mean? It could've meant, "I know you got screwed, buddy." He sure wasn't going to say, "Jack, you are a thoughtful guy and I appreciate your kindness and spirit." Jack stifled a burp, wiped his face with his catsup-stained paper napkin, and hurried to the bathroom.

Jack was standing at the urinal when Coach Reynolds came out of the stall to wash his hands. Jack stared straight ahead. He felt at risk of choking into tears. The coach was taking his time, using multiple paper towels. He sighed. Jack zipped up and stood at the second sink.

"Well, Jack?" the coach said, turning as he grabbed the door handle. "Did you get enough to eat?"

He couldn't speak. He shook his head no. The coach was already halfway out the door.

*

"This young man—this young man"—Jack lay in bed imagining the speech the Coach should've given. If his father had come to some games, maybe Coach Reynolds would've felt pressure to be fair. If he saw that someone cared about Jack. Someone who knew a thing about sports, who had the good looks and charm and confidence of an old jock who kept in shape, who got the girls, who got a good job, who had influence, tickets to the big game, who knew somebody who knew somebody. His dad had played college ball. You could just look at him and tell. When he put his hand on your shoulder, you felt you'd been blessed by good fortune. Jack had seen it all his life. And women—women felt something too. But Jack's dad was busy squandering that charm, tossing family #2 to the curb. Coach Reynolds wouldn't let himself be schmoozed by a slick guy like his dad anyway. Would he?

Since everybody expected him to be angry when his father left him and his mother, Jack hadn't known how to show his displeasure in a way that might surprise someone into paying attention. No way could he match his mother's rage. He was at a difficult age, everybody said. His teachers had been alerted. His grandparents had pitched in with supportive phone calls and blank greeting cards loaded with cash. He was pretty sure Hallmark didn't have a line for his situation.

How about just a card saying, Sorry you didn't get the Spirit Award. You are OUR Spirit Award Winner! Exclamation point. He needed a lot of exclamation points. He'd thought at least one teammate would have mentioned that he'd been jobbed by the old-boy network. Everybody was going on to different high schools. It was the end for them as a team, and no one was going to invest any outrage in a consolation prize for benchwarmers. That was true—as true as any statistic.

*

Coach Reynolds had put his arm around him after Jack had scored his lone basket of the season. He was always pointing out Jack as the model: "Look at Stern here, he's not complaining. Look at Stern here, he's ready to go in and take your place. Look at Stern running sprints—he's not dogging it."

One late afternoon, Jack was sitting alone in the bleachers after practice, waiting for a ride—in the confusion of the separation, his pick-up had slipped off the charts.

Coach said, "I wish they could all be like you, Jackie," as he headed out of the gym. Jack got choked up: nobody appreciated him, but Coach did.

"Look at Stern, he got enough to eat." Jack wanted to say something to Coach about the award, but what could he say that wouldn't make him a sore loser? What could he say that wouldn't make all his spirit seem like an act now, like one of his father's acts?

*

He could hear his father and Misty giggling in their bedroom. Misty was an airhead—even Jack knew that. She had no idea how to deal with children. She acted like he was slow, even handicapped, speaking to him in this sing-songy voice that perhaps she used for her cats. How could his father dump his mother for this? Dump him, for this? Jack wanted to compare notes with his ex-stepsisters, but they hadn't returned his texts.

Jack took eight shots all season, and made one. He took two free throws, and missed them both. He committed twelve personal fouls. He pulled down fourteen rebounds. Zero steals. Two turnovers. He needed more statistics to put himself to sleep, more numbers. More proof. The Spirit Award—no stats for good behavior.

He had never heard his mother giggle like Misty was giggling. Maybe he would've needed to be around before he was born to hear that.

*

Dad, wait up. You can't leave Mom like you left your first wife. Don't make me stay in your little apartment listening to you and Misty. Is that her real name? Who ever heard of someone named Misty?

Finally, his father turned around to look for him. Jack held up his hand. "Dad, wait up." He could say it now that his father had turned.

"C'mon Jack, it's late." His father looked at his watch in a showy kind of way. Other kids and their parents were passing by, getting in cars, slamming doors. The cold March rain still had some winter in it. Jack had turned his phone off for the ceremony and missed his father's call to say he was out front, so he'd had to come in and get him.

Jack caught up to his father, who quickly turned and hurried in front again like a game they used to play when Jack was a boy. He was no longer a boy. Nobody seemed to see that. His father'd been fucking Missy for how long? Jack wasn't an idiot. Jack could see his father's slick black sports car shining wet under a streetlight. His father, pushing fifty, driving a car that could not even hold all his children.

"Your father's whole life's been one long mid-life crisis," his mother had said to him. What did it mean to be at mid-life? Maybe he was at mid-life? Would he die at twenty-eight? Jack scrambled into the passenger seat after his father popped the lock. He buckled up.

*

"You going to play high school ball?" his father asked. Jack felt the hot dogs and cokes and chips sloshing in his stomach as his father shifted gears over the wet streets blurred with passing headlights, streetlights, stop lights, emergency flashers. Silence in the car, but outside, a chaos of lights.

"I was hoping to get an award tonight."

"You got a certificate or something, didn't you?"

Jack crumpled it tighter into his fist.

"Everybody gets certificates, Dad."

"Yeah, right," his father said.

"But I stuck it out," Jack said. "That means something." He waited for confirmation.

"Yeah, you stuck it out," his father finally said.

When Jack was younger, his father had coached his Boy's Club team, but like many fine athletes, he didn't have the patience to teach others without his gifts. He showed off at practice, draining three pointers from all around the arc. When it came to instruction, he told them what not to do, but not what to do if they couldn't do what he'd been able to.

But Jack had liked that time with his father, away from his mother and stepsisters. Getting in the car together like they were a team, like they could do something, the two of them. Make a dent together in the impenetrable ordinary world.

His father sighed louder than the heater dishing it out full blast. "Listen, I'm sorry I couldn't make it. Okay?"

"To what, my life?" Jack shouted abruptly. The rain was pouring down. The wipers couldn't keep up. If the temperature dropped another couple of degrees, it'd be snowing.

His father downshifted to slow the car. "Settle down, now. Just because you didn't get some award."

"You never come to anything. All the other fathers—"

"When's the last time your mother came to one of your games?"

"Mom hates sports."

"She didn't used to."

Jack tried to think of a comeback. She'd probably been taken in by his jock appeal, though she was a lawyer like him, someone not easily taken in by surface luster. "My life"—that'd been a good one. His mother was no longer a good sport.

Jack's father specialized in liquor licenses. He knew every restaurant owner in town. He ate well. He drank well. He got bored easily.

"Your mother and I..." his father began.

"What did you say to Cheryl and Kim?"

"Your mother and I..."

"I mean, last time you did this? I bet they got a kick out of hearing you did it again."

"This is this time. That's all that should matter to you—this time. Your father has commitment issues, okay? I'm never getting married again, okay?"

"You tell Missy that?"

"Misty—"

His father clutched and shifted.

"You going to be making any babies with her?"

His father made a noise that could've been half a laugh. "Sometimes, life just gets away from you."

"Dad, you've got everything. Am I supposed to feel sorry for you?"

Jack didn't want to talk like this with his father. His father playing the "human being" card on him, making him talk like a grown-up when he wasn't even in high school.

"No, I just don't want you expecting me to feel sorry for you."

Jack tried to jam the certificate into the pocket of his suit coat but realized that it was sewn shut for some reason. He sat on it instead. He did want his father to feel sorry for him, and what was wrong with that?

"I'm sorry you didn't get—what award? I didn't think you played much."

Jack hesitated. He looked aver at water streaming down the side window. "The Spirit Award."

"Aw, Jack," his father said, "that's...that's a, that's kind of a chump award, isn't it? You don't need that crap. You've got the rest of your life—sitting on the bench and being a good sport isn't going to cut it."

"I wanted—I deserved that award. The assistant coach's kid got it."

"Okay, so you learned—everything's a rigged deal. That's a good thing to learn now, not later when somebody screws you out of a job or a contract."

"What was rigged about being married to mom—who got screwed on that one?"

"You don't have to play next year."

"I didn't have to play this year." Jack thought it would feel better, mouthing off to his father, but he just felt sick. Hot dogs and coke and chips and his father. "Why the hell do they sew the pockets shut on these things?"

"See, that's the kind of question you need to be asking," his father said, pointing vaguely out toward the rain.

*

Jack's father rented an apartment downtown, a completely kid-unfriendly place above a rehabbed theater. Being a "good sport" would never get his parents back together. Losing gracefully just made it easier for the winners, and what was the point of that?

Jack wondered if the other guys had shunned him because the coach had used him as the good example, not because he was a lousy player. Maybe the coach himself had disdain for a kid who wanted to please that badly.

They parked in the garage next to his father's building. The rain was slanting in sideways through the gaps between pillars, and the wind howling through the cold cement tunnel made Jack shudder, his sport coat and tie flapping as he ran to the elevator, ahead of his father now, who was running to catch up, to say one more thing.

"Your mother's no innocent in all this," he said. "She knew what the deal was going in. Don't let her turn you against me."

"Did I know what the deal was?" He did not have to be a good teammate ever again. He let the elevator door close just as his father was about to enter.

Misty buzzed him in. She sat bundled up in a blanket like a fluffy kitten, her dark hair stark against the new white overstuffed couch.

How was the banquet, Jackie?" she asked with all the enthusiasm of an auditioning cheerleader.

"Okay," Jack said, and tossed his wet sports coat to the floor. Just then his father stormed in, glaring at him.

"Come and sit down, tell me all about it," Misty said, patting the cushion next to her. "All grown up in your fancy clothes."

"It's okay, Misty, you don't have to," his father said. She looked like she was about to say something, but his father repeated firmly, "It's okay. Jack can handle it. He's a big boy with a lot on his mind. " His father looked at him. "Jack won the Spirit Award tonight. We're counting on him to handle it."

Jack wasn't sure who we was, nor what it was. Nor whether his father was lying, or finally telling the truth.

"Spirit, huh?" Misty said. "That's great!"

He hurried off to his new room, which had been designed as a large, walk-in closet—a long rod ran the length of the room. Would his stepsisters sleep here too? He realized he'd left his duffle full of clothes in his mother's car. He slunk back into the living room to borrow a pair of his father's pajamas. Misty whispered something and tried to stifle a guttural laugh.

As Jack lay in bed, he imagined the speech the Coach should have given: "This young man stuck it out. This young man gave it his all. This young man cheered when appropriate. Kept his mouth shut when appropriate. He smiled so hard his teeth began to turn to dust. He showered dutifully even when he had not broken a sweat. He always tucked his jersey in. He...." Jack heard a muffled moan through the wall, and another giggle. He started again, aloud this time, shouting to be heard, "This young man..."

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