~ from the short story "Turkeys"
I AND YOU by J. David Stevens
On Thursday, Raymond’s father picked up the athletic permission forms from the high school. Then he took Raymond to buy cleats. He made a production of handling every shoe in The Sports Authority—bending them at the toe, knocking his fist against the molded rubber bottoms—before selecting a discounted pair one size too small with soccer balls on the heels. Raymond didn’t complain. Over the weekend, he knew, his mother would return the shoes and select a pair the proper size, depositing them in his closet without comment.
After shopping, they dropped by the tire store where Tommy Feng was smoking in the back parking lot. An assistant manager, Tommy was almost Raymond’s height but thinner, with angular cheeks and longish hair that always looked damp. He drove a yellow Lancer with a custom spoiler and had never finished high school, but Raymond’s dad liked him because he had an easy rapport with customers: men and women, Chinese and not. “Good in school,” his father said, “doesn’t always mean good in business.”
Raymond was headed toward the building when his father stopped to open the trunk of their Buick and tossed him a football. He saw Tommy Feng glance his way. “You stay and practice,” his father said. “Throw it up and catch it. You only have a few more days.”
He disappeared into the back of the store, and Raymond moved to the center of the parking lot, his fingers grooving into the laces, spiraling the ball upward before it dropped easily into the cradle of his forearm and chest. He threw the ball higher and higher, making a game of it, and had almost started to enjoy himself when he noticed Tommy Feng standing only a few feet away, motioning for the ball. Raymond shoveled it to him.
“Run a post,” Tommy said, cigarette bouncing as he spoke. He barked a snap-count, and Raymond felt his feet move, body gliding in a straight line before angling across the parking spaces. He half-expected a pass like his father would have thrown it, so when the ball rifled into his chest, his hands barely had time to clamp down. “Sweet,” Tommy said.
They ran pattern after pattern, the passes hitting Raymond in the numbers every time. At some point, Tommy got rid of his cigarette and started dropping back, pretending to avoid a blitzing linebacker before he torqued the ball Raymond’s direction. A kind of relief grew inside Raymond with each catch. Where his father’s throws required him to look well in advance of their delivery, Tommy’s throws arrived almost the instant he extended his arms. He ran faster. Cut loose from the anxiety of backyard workouts, his body flowed. He liked the feeling, the smoothness of it, the way his muscles knew how to work even before his mind told them. It even occurred to him that he might have liked football—at least the running and catching parts of it—if only he’d come to that decision on his own.
When Tommy said to go long, Raymond was so amazed to watch the ball float over his shoulder and into his outstretched hands that he almost careened into the concrete barrier separating the tire store’s parking lot from the cell phone dealer. Tommy leaned against the A/C unit when Raymond came jogging back. “Nice hands,” he said, swatting a pack of Marlboros then withdrawing a cigarette with his teeth. He held the pack toward Raymond, who shook his head. “So when are tryouts?”
Tommy finished lighting up, tossing the match. “I didn’t know you liked football.”
“You trying to impress a girl?”
It reminded Raymond of the time that Tommy had asked if he were dating when he was only in the fourth grade. Over the years, most of his comments to Raymond had run that way: jokes about girls, driving, shaving. Raymond folded his arms but couldn’t help glancing toward the back door, suddenly hoping his father would reappear.
Tommy followed his gaze. He looked at the Buick then back at Raymond. “Oh, that’s great,” he laughed. “That’s one I never heard before.”
“Football,” he said. “Violin lessons maybe. Good grades. Even chess, you know?” He shook his head. “But football?”
“I already get good grades,” Raymond said.
“I bet you do.”
Raymond knew this much: his father respected Tommy Feng. He liked the number of tires Tommy could sell. There was a certain quality—a “Feng-ness”—that Raymond’s father wanted his son to possess. But he would be livid if one day Raymond turned into Tommy Feng. “It’s not like that.”
“It’s always like that,” Tommy said, blowing a cone of smoke into the air. He turned back to Raymond, his smile fading. “You don’t need to defend him.”
“Who says I’m defending him?”
Tommy shrugged. He took another pull off the cigarette, holding the smoke in his cheeks before releasing it out his nose. He seemed to be studying Raymond, who would later decide that Tommy—if only for a second—was trying to help. “Have it your way. Maybe it’s not his fault. Too many ghosts, you know?”
Raymond looked straight ahead. He wanted to pretend that he understood, but his face refused to unfrown. Tommy’s hand drifted to one side, knocking away some ash. “You think someone has to die to make a ghost, right? Like a spook? But every choice makes a ghost. Turn left on a street, and a ghost turns right. Maybe you don’t notice at first, but they add up. One day, a guy like your father looks in the mirror, and there they are, looking back.”
Raymond considered the possibilities. “That’s true for everybody.”
“Maybe.” Tommy shrugged. “But some ghosts are more contagious than others.”
In the break that followed, Raymond could hear the traffic on Rt. 22 from the other side of the store. He watched Tommy scratch the back of his head, the cigarette still lodged between two fingers. Old questions stirred in his head, but before he could capture one on his tongue, his father ambled from the back door. Tommy pushed away from the A/C unit. “We’re burning daylight,” he announced to no one in particular.
Raymond’s father focused on Raymond. “Did you practice?”
“Like a pro,” Tommy agreed. Raymond turned to find him still palming the football. “Good luck, champ,” Tommy said, lofting the ball his direction.