THE SUMMER I turned nine, I was sent off to Calvin Murphy Basketball Camp at Quinnipiac University. I’d never been to sleepaway camp before and when the idea was broached (“You’re going”) I was generally unreceptive. Competition was for kids with mustaches and girlfriends. Practicing was a half step down from homework. But somehow I’d scored 36 points in the final game of the year, revealing a previously hidden talent that–at least to my father–cried out for just the sort of attention that only a week full of drills and whistles and admonitions to hustle, goddammit could provide.
But camp didn’t start until July, so I had a month of summer to kill off first, thirty-odd mornings in which to slowly chew English muffins and consider my fate.
The last day of school a bunch of us were out in the parking lot, waiting for the bus, ready for action. I grabbed my Algebra book and lobbed it in the air. As it fell, I swung my foot and caught the spine so perfectly that the book sort of exploded, like a bag of cash sucked into an airplane propeller at the end of a heist movie. Everyone laughed, amazed, prettier girls than tended to acknowledge me suddenly assessing, recalibrating.
But then it was summer for real, and there were no more hallways or parking lots to be enigmatically available in. We lived pretty far off in the woods. I had a bike, but not anyone’s phone number, or the stones for unannounced door knocking. The luster from my algebra violence was probably only good for a weekend, anyway.
My father left for his job at the prison before six. My mother knocked on the door on the way out and, as usual, said something patiently loving. I pretended to be asleep, dying for them to leave, but when they did I was always beset with a wave of pure, distilled emptiness, the kind that–had I been old enough to identify or even acknowledge–would have caused me to carve numbers in my arm or drink half a bottle of whiskey and run naked through the streets.
Every day was pretty much the same: I’d spend an hour tracking down my father’s poorly-hidden Playboys, check my sister’s room for new diary entries, and then read twenty pages of lesser-known C.S. Lewis. I kept expecting a magical lion to show up in The Screwtape Letters, but instead it delivered an allusive brand of Christian recruitment that I was intrigued by. Could a relationship with God make lying on the mustard-plaid couch every afternoon even five percent more interesting? And, further, would this deity have a fixed position on my self-abusive relationship with The Girls of the Southeastern Conference?
After breakfast I’d watch The Price is Right and Hollywood Squares, followed by the heavily closeted B-list entedre-fest that was Match Game. I was a fan of Nipsy Russell and Soupy Sales, gentle comics who–unlike the snickering Charles Nelson Reilly–seemed versed in basic strategy. But by noon, a toxic slate of soap operas began their daily putsch, seizing control of all three channels, so I’d pull on my shorts and go for a run. It was extremely hot and insects buzzed and some plant that smelled like corn filled the air with its choking scent. I’d started with a mile, but soon worked up to three, and then five. With each step I envisioned a crowd watching, cheering me on. I fantasized that girls from school lined the side of the road, gossiping about my endurance and stoicism in the face of multiple side cramps. Sometimes a neighbor would look up and wave. I never waved back, which would have conceded a less than 100% commitment to pace and technique, but always secretly hoped one would invite me in for lemonade and a sandwich. In this scenario, they’d have just lost a son in a fluke cement-mixer accident and then come to depend on my daily run for a fleeting reconnection with the beauty of youth. The woman, in a gingham dress, would sing gently while hugging me, pressing my cheek against the fragrant sachet tucked between her breasts. The man, one hand slipped stylishly in the side pocket of his cardigan, would take me out to the workshop and with military formality present me with his dead son’s roller skates, bone-handled hunting knife, and unopened remote controlled helicopter kit.
And so as the days got closer, and with my summer already following a nuanced arc, I was unwilling to let the presumptuous Irishman Calvin Murphy ruin it all.
“I really, really don’t want to go.”
My father insisted.
“You’ll regret it when you’re older.”
“The odds of that are unbelievably slim.”
“I will be very disappointed in you.”
“We’ve already paid the tuition.”
“I can get it back to you in installments.”
He shook his head with sad wisdom, lit his pipe, and then slunk off to his den to meditate.
The night before my sentence began, my mother insisted on helping me pack. I was pretty sure three pairs of socks, three pairs of shorts, and three T-shirts would do it, but somehow she filled an entire suitcase with wool sweaters and the horn of Old Spice my grandfather had given me for Christmas. She also insisted I bring the half-finished blanket I’d been knitting.
My mother was crafty. I was often crafty with her. Toll painting, ceramics, crochet. Rug hooking, decoupage, watercolors. We knit together, side by side, during M*A*S*H and Happy Days. My blanket wasn’t quite finished yet. It was comprised of a group of small squares, maybe a dozen at the center, sewn together and then surrounded by a series of increasingly larger rectangular pieces. It was big and unruly and fairly expressionist. I was indifferent to the number of hours and degree of thought that had gone into it, knowing on some subconscious level that if I spent even a second considering the fact that I knit at all, I’d immediately quit and become obsessed with drag racing instead.
“I don’t think this is such a good idea.”
“Don’t be a baby.”
My mother thought Calvin Murphy Basketball Camp was just the place to get in a little extra needlework. No doubt there would be plenty of downtime in the dorm at night. I’d have a complete stranger as a roommate, and who knows if we’d have anything to talk about? Being surrounded by three hundred boys slamming doors and wrestling each other until lights-out would pretty much be the ideal scenario in which to polish off the last few panels. I swallowed hard, choosing my words carefully. My mother was not easily dissuaded, and I might get only one chance. So I painted a fairly vivid scenario in which, mere hours after my arrival, every last kid at Calvin Murphy Basketball Camp got one look at my bag of needles and skeins and delicate purple fringe-work and then lined up to take turns kicking my skinny white ass all around the quad, taking special pains to plant their size 16 Pro Keds repeatedly–and with the accuracy of trained athletes–right between my estrogen-swollen nuts.
My mother put her hands on her hips and said,”Rosey Grier does it, and I bet no one bothers him.”
I did not respond. There seemed no point in explaining that, yes, although Rosey Grier was famous for his enjoyment of needlepoint, he was also a six-foot-five, three hundred pound defensive end for the Los Angeles Rams, perhaps the baddest member of the Fearsome Foursome, a unit who regularly tore the limbs from opposing quarterbacks and ate them like drumsticks. Aside from that, the analogy was solid.
My mother often wore a housecoat back then, and had the habit of keeping a wad of Kleenex shoved just inside the sleeve. It was a Depression-era remnant handed down from her grandmother, back when a single tissue was saved, folded, and re-used for weeks on end. Everyone in the family knew that when the Kleenex came out, it was time to stop arguing. Even my father–who was adamant that I not bring the blanket, and had in fact been advising that I take nothing but a single sharpened knitting needle shoved down my sock instead–saw tissue emerge and shrugged.
The next day we drove my mother’s tan Impala station wagon an hour north to Quinnipiac. I spent the entire ride in the back seat, sweating in terror. My mother kept asking if I was alright. I kept saying yes. She kept asking if I was sick. I kept saying no. Eventually we pulled onto the side of the highway and I threw up a stream of clear bile.
“Eat too much breakfast?”
When we finally pulled into the school’s parking lot, it was instantly clear the entire thing was a horrible, tragic mistake. The check-in line was full of big dudes with afros, wild armpit hair, and bushy sideburns. They looked like the cast from The White Shadow, or maybe extras from The Warriors. I was by far the youngest kid in the entire camp. No one else was being checked in by their parents. They were all hi-fiving and dribbling between their legs and behind their backs and calling each other “motherfucker.” Meanwhile, the knitting just sat there, waiting to be discovered. It was like a suitcase bomb, irradiated, pulsing with my effeminacy. I excused myself to get a soda from the vending machine. Each flavor had been crossed out with a key or a knife, and the words “Cum Juice” scratched in instead. I chose Cum Juice. Turned out to be grape.
I was assigned a room and a T-shirt. My mother gave me a hug. My father shook my hand and wished me good luck.
“I’m not going to forget this,” I said.
“I know,” he said.
And then they were gone.
The dorms were squat cinder block affairs, the sort of grim Stalin-era architecture that alluded to turnip shortages and crude information gathering. The first thing I did was hide the blanket. I’d smuggled in two black plastic lawn bags for exactly that purpose. I double-sealed it, and then tied them both tightly, along with my needles and patterns and extra yarn, and buried the whole thing in the closet under a mountain of discarded Chuck Taylors and yellowed towels. Then I spent the next five hours waiting for my roommate, practicing different poses and introductory jokes, trying to look like exactly the kind of person who wouldn’t know a purl stitch from his asshole.
My roommate finally showed up after midnight. He was probably seventeen, had the makings of a real mustache, and was completely drunk.
“There’s nothing in the closet,” I said.
“Do you care which bunk is yours?”
He seemed to be trying to focus. His neck muscles flexed. He belched, picked up his duffel bag, and left.
I slept alone for a few days, surrounded by four whitewashed walls, which amplified the prison-like noises of laughing, yelling, and random animal rage. I tossed and turned on the thin mattress, sweating, expecting someone to barge in at any moment and demand to be shown the yarn. On the third morning, while I was brushing my teeth in the communal bathroom, a tall kid walked over and held out his hand. In the center lay a dozen yellow pills.
“Want a mean ride?”
“No,” I said, in my deepest voice, which was about half an octave lower than Blossom Dearie.
“They’ll make you play better.”
“You don’t need ‘em, huh? You that good?”
I didn’t answer.
He poked me in the chest. “Well, I guess we’ll see what’s what out on the court.”
We did see what’s what. Me getting the ball stolen. Me throwing it out of bounds. Me getting dunked on. Me getting abused under the rim. Me getting faked out at the top of the key. Me shooting consecutive air balls. Me finally making a layup that drew a round of derisive applause from both teams. The coach finally yanked me from the game. I sat at the end of the bench, ruing the fact that I didn’t even have quarters for an ice-cold Cum Juice.
During halftime, I called my mother collect.
“Some guy tried to give me drugs.”
I could hear Kleenex emerge from her sleeve. “Don’t move,” she said, and then hung up.
After lunch I was told to skip drills and go wait in the dorm. When I got to my room, there was a pair of Fruit of the Loom’s hanging from the doorknob. Inside the underwear, slung like a lawyer in a hammock, was a monster turd. It was so heavy the waistband was distended, stretched to maximum elasticity. I lifted it with two fingers and flung it down the hall, where it came to rest in a thick mahogany skid. Then I locked myself in the room and tried to think of clean things, like milk and sliced oranges and baby rabbits.
The camp director showed up about an hour later. He had a gleaming chrome whistle strung around his neck. Also, as part of a pattern I’d come to recognize in the organizational power structure of athletics, he was enormously fat and appeared to have never touched a ball in his life.
“Where’s your roommate?”
“Have you been sleeping here alone?”
“How old are you?”
He frowned and wrote something on his clipboard.
“Yeah, so, the thing with the pills? Those were just vitamins.”
We both stared at the closet door.
“Good. Pack up your stuff.”
I thought for a second I was going home, but he just moved me in with the two other youngest guys in camp. They were both thirteen, but seemed to regard me as relatively human. Probably because I’d had the wisdom to leave my blanket in the old room.
Turns out Calvin Murphy wasn’t a ruddy Puritan icon burned at the stake for railing against the sale of indulgences, but was instead a point guard for the Houston Rockets. He showed up once a day for about an hour or so to slap fives and sign napkins. He was incredibly short by NBA standards, but was otherwise a lightning-quick packet of attitude and muscle. Being on the court with Calvin, even for a minute, was like suddenly realizing other people could fly. He was down to the opposite basket and back, having stolen the ball, scored, and stolen it again, before I could even take a step. He also talked in non-sequiturs, strictly from the James Brown school of comprehensibility. He would yell things during drills, things which I desperately wanted to comply with, but had no clue what in the fuck he was talking about. Each time it was my turn in line, he’d spin the ball on one finger, nod, adjust his package, wipe some sweat, and then bark something like,
“Gettin it? Right. Good. Yeh. Now. Gimme a sammaslamma.”
I’d wait until he said it a second time, and then do what I always did, which was dribble as fast away from him as I could and then try to blend into the crowd watching on the other side. Calvin would roll his eyes and go,
“You callin that sammaslamma?”
Everyone would laugh, but I was clearly too hopeless to force into another attempt, so he’d just move onto the next player.
After drills, Calvin would give a speech that was more or less the same every time. It should have been titled The Value of Socks. Calvin loved socks. In fact, he wore eight pairs. All at once. Always. It was easy to believe, since his calves were massive, their girth seeming to point to a bad case of gout, or some other dire health issue.
“Socks. Gotta have ‘em,” he concluded.
The entire camp nodded as one.
Turns out Calvin was also a world-champion baton twirler. After dinner he’d show up in the cafeteria with a briefcase full of gleaming silver batons and then put on a show. He could do one in each hand, going in opposite directions. He could flip them behind his neck, around his legs, suspend them in the air, do every conceivable trick, always managing to keep them spinning in intricate patterns. It was astonishing. It made me want to be special. It made me want to excel. It made me want to twirl those things just as good as Calvin, but deep down I knew there was no room for both batons and knitting to coexist in one relatively un-scarred adolescence. Speaking of which, it turns out that Calvin fathered fourteen children by nine different women. Also, a few years ago, a number of his daughters accused him of molestation. He was acquitted.
At the end of the week my parents came and picked me up. It was that simple.
My mother mentioned that the dog had missed me.
“Good,” I said.
My father wondered if my new skills would be applicable to the team.
“Good,” I said.
The rest of the way home I stared out the window. It was now mid-August, and school would be starting again soon.
I gave up knitting that Christmas, after spending most of the fall making my sister a purse. My mother had found some sort of pattern in a craft magazine for a “Disco Bag.” It was a cool little thing with a clasp that went over your shoulder and fit at the small of your back, just big enough for a wallet and lipstick and presumably a few vials of Disco Cocaine. I’d had to use special tiny needles to get the weave super tight. On Christmas morning my sister looked it over, dangling from one finger. “Thanks,” she finally said, and then gave me my present, a brand new Oral B soft bristle and a tube of Crest. “Brush up,” she said. After a while, one of her friends pulled into the driveway and then they all drove off to a party somewhere. I don’t think the bag ever made it out of the house, let alone to a disco. An hour later I threw all the knitting stuff down the basement stairs and then became immersed in a series of books about cruel men who rode horses, frequented brothels, and terrorized border towns. Soon after that I bought my first Black Sabbath album.
Oddly, my blanket survived. My father had helped me sneak it out of the dorm and into the trunk of his car. Many years later, I brought it with me to college. For a semester I used it as a bedspread, and if the right girl happened to be lying on top of it, I would stop kissing her long enough to affect a wholly fraudulent shyness and confess I’d knitted the thing myself.
“Are you serious?”
“Yeah, I guess.”
For a second I’d almost feel guilty, basking in the aura of sensitivity that knitting conferred onto my otherwise emotionless and indifferent soul. And then I’d lean in and force my tongue between her lips.
Not long after, I traded the blanket to an arty painter girl for a pair of black motorcycle boots. I wore those boots every single day for a year until, while crossing the street in Chicago, one of the heels snapped completely off. I walked lopsided for half a block and then threw the boots onto the hood of a parked police car, before making it the rest of the way back to my friend’s apartment barefoot.
When I got there, no one laughed. They understood. We were adults now, uninclined to belittle each other without cause.
In this new world, this brief window of open-mindedness, having once been a knitter was actually seen as a positive, a weird affectation, a punk disavowal of norms, a badge of individuality, a willingness to be different.
Being different was everything.
Until five years later, when it was nothing at all again.