When Rus Bradburd talks basketball, it’s usually a good idea to listen. Fourteen years of high-major Division I coaching—under the tutelage of fixtures such as Don Haskins and Lou Henson—supplemented by thousands of miles on the recruiting trail (remember this guy?) embedded the game into Bradburd’s DNA. Rus made his mark on college basketball, and since he hung up the clipboard in 2000, he’s quickly and effectively made his mark in the world of words and stories.
In his new book, Make It, Take It, Bradburd gives readers a fictional yet incredibly authentic and revealing glimpse into the game behind the game. He tells the tale of Steve Pytel, an assistant at Southern Arizona State University, who is struggling to keep his job, family and composure in one piece. If you were to throw all the elements of a college basketball program—recruiting, reputations, money, bias, rule bending, juvenility, pressure and politics, to name a few—into a cauldron, add in deft storytelling and a handful of different, seamlessly intertwined perspectives, and sprinkle on the backdrop of a high-stakes, everything-is-on-the-line season, the result would be Bradburd’s novel.
While we can’t post the whole book here—you can purchase it on Amazon—thanks to Rus and the good folks at Cinco Puntos Press, we’re able to post the first chapter below. Check back later this week for a book review and Q+A with Rus.—Ed.
THE KING OF SIAM
A FLAT TIRE on Jack Hood’s car stalled them.
“Join me over here,” Hood said from the narrow shade of a telephone pole. “Yesterday I laughed at a Mexican lady hiding like this at a bus stop. Today it’s not so funny.”
The peaceful cool of the April desert had burned away by 10 a.m., and when the wind blew, the heat intensified. Wasteland spread in every direction—creosote and cactus, a graveyard of dead mesquite trees. Occasionally a car would zip by.
Hood had recently moved to town as the new basketball coach at Southern Arizona State University and soon he’d be deciding Steve Pytel’s future. Since Hood’s arrival, several candidates had been close to accepting Pytel’s job—the assistant position that he was clinging to—but one by one, he’d learned, they’d declined.
The college’s administration had appointed Pytel to temporarily lead the transition to the new regime, but since then he’d hardly been alone with Hood. How could he keep his job if he couldn’t even get face time with the new boss? Pytel tried to make it clear that he was anxious to remain on staff, had suggested lunch, coffee, whatever, knowing he might not get another paycheck after the first of May. It wasn’t fair to be led on, yet he suspected that that was exactly what Hood was doing.
Pytel held hope for the first time that morning when Hood offered to show him his new house, five miles beyond the city limits, in the shiny silver Audi. Pytel saw this little trip as The Interview, a chance to shine. Although Hood hadn’t used the word “interview.”
The telephone pole’s shadow did provide relief, Pytel noticed. He and Hood were nearly the same height but Hood was bigger. Thicker. They stood back-to-back, as if help might arrive from somewhere off on the horizon.
PYTEL HAD LIVED in the Southwest for years and knew the sun could push you out of bounds. He had developed strategies to deal with the heat—white shirts, short sleeves, all cotton, a freezer full of water bottles, and ice in his beer at night.
Pytel’s wife Stephanie teased him about his routines. She was comfortable in town. A transplanted Californian, her skin held a deep tan, whereas he turned pink or blistered at the slightest exposure. She wasn’t thrilled about the peculiar ethics of college basketball, or his desire to remain in the business now as an assistant coach. “You’re slogging around knee-deep in this shit,” she told him. “And for what?” Their salaries were not so different, and she claimed her own job teaching kids was “noble.” Stephanie wondered why he couldn’t just get his high school teaching certificate. Why not get out today? Hadn’t the door been left open when Pytel’s previous boss was dumped after another average season?
If things didn’t work out at State, but he got an offer from another university, he’d planned to ask her to try a new location, but she was now suggesting she would not tag along if he left town.
Like many coaches, Pytel wished he could recapture a feeling about basketball that he hardly remembered. Of course he wanted to keep his wife, yet he wasn’t ready to leave college ball. He was pushing, instead, in the other direction—he’d been an assistant coach far too long, and he deserved the chance to run his own college team. He could name coaches who’d gotten that shot who weren’t nearly as qualified. If he could have convinced Stephanie to discuss it at length, he’d have admitted the appeal of the huge salary a head coach commanded.
Weeks earlier, before Hood was hired, Pytel had made some inquiries about the head job on his own behalf, tested the waters, but was told twice that the team was not doing well enough—no universities promoted assistants from losing teams. Most schools didn’t keep them around at all. Pytel now believed that being attached to a winner remained as one of two prerequisites to his promotion anywhere.
The second was this: Pytel had learned, after his own informal survey, that the percentage of head coaches without children was miniscule, nearly as small as the number of single head coaches. He was now convinced that completing the trinity with Stephanie would increase his marketability. Having a baby, of course, would also keep her on board, or maybe even keep her at home temporarily.
He had been to the fertility clinic on the day Jack Hood was named to the position Pytel coveted. For two hours he waited to be called by a nurse, which gave him plenty of time to retrace his steps, figure how his career had broken down at this crossroads. A decade earlier, as an assistant at another college, he’d come close to being selected as head coach. Just thirty-two years old at the time, he’d been derailed by what he now understood was the kiss of death: the black players had publicly endorsed him. That wouldn’t happen again—lately they seemed to speak a new language, one he no longer had the patience to learn.
This was Pytel’s basketball resume: practicing his long-range shot religiously as a boy on the graveled driveway, a euphoric ritual. Next, a scholarship to a school called Morehead State. After graduation, it was weekend coaching clinics while he taught American history at a Detroit area high school. Then an entry-level job back at his alma mater, where he’d gotten too friendly with the black guys. Finally, the assistant coaching job at State. And this was the sum of his knowledge: a college program’s success hinged simply on one thing: the prospects you could lasso for your team. Pytel’s job was to hunt down good players and keep them eligible.
Now, in order to advance his career, he had to keep his job, help put a great team on the court, and a family in his home. How difficult could that be?
Stephanie had been through lengthy medical sessions and the tests had proven her capable, which only raised Pytel’s level of anxiety. He’d gotten kneed in the nuts once in college, was black and blue for weeks, and he suspected he was sterile. The fertility clinic was an exercise in humiliation. Before he left, he instructed the nurse to call him with the results. If the news wasn’t good, he could figure a new plan of attack. He’d been waiting ever since, waiting to learn if he was to blame.
“You think a person has to love his job,” Pytel said to Stephanie when the regime change was announced, his job jeopardized. She was lucky, he said, because she indeed loved hers. “Your job, though, is a soul-killer. It’s got you thinking like the older teachers I work with.” In the faculty lunchroom, she said, her colleagues had the hundred-yard stare. They couldn’t wait to get away from their students and thought Stephanie was weird because she ate with her class, traded sandwiches and knock-knock jokes.
Pytel said he used to love his work, although he hadn’t for years. “But if I thought you were correct,” he added, “I’d quit today.” How could a game become a soul-killer, anyway? He liked basketball, liked kids, and that used to be enough. Pytel was going to ride this out, see if Jack Hood would retain him. Hood would not have been Pytel’s first choice, but naturally nobody had asked him. He couldn’t imagine he’d really have to choose between a wife and a job in college ball.
“You’re sinking,” she said. “This is your time to get out of an awful business. This could be a life raft, not a fresh start.”
AS THEY’D EXITED campus, Hood had asked Pytel his opinion of the new Audi. Local car dealers supplied the basketball and football coaches with freebies.
“It’s the same model they issued to Jerry Conroy,” Pytel said.
“That pink coach?” Hood sniffed. He was already deriding the man he’d replaced—Conroy had led the “Tough Enough to Wear Pink” campaign for breast cancer awareness. “No, it’s not the same model,” Hood added, patting the leather seat. He explained that this was the second Audi he had been given as the “courtesy car” perk. The first model didn’t have leather seats and so it never left the show lot.
Hood drifted around the road, couldn’t seem to stay between the lines, and the weaving pulled Pytel gently from side to side. Hood announced he had a story to tell.
“This was back East, as everyone around here calls it,” he said. He’d been at a private university before State, where he’d earned an NCAA tournament bid for the first time in that school’s history. His first year there he’d given a scholarship to a player named Willie Norfolk, a nice kid but a mediocre student. Hood said he’d been in the Norfolk’s home to recruit him, consoled his mother, who cried while she detailed the hardship of raising a teenager in their crumbling North Philadelphia neighborhood. He was impressed with the lady—despite the Ritz crackers and grape Shasta sodas she’d welcomed him with. The mother was the key when recruiting black kids, but there was a corollary, Hood said. “An over-attachment to a strong-willed woman screws up a guy’s head.”
Hood learned after Norfolk enrolled that he’d made a mistake: “Norfolk couldn’t play dead in a cowboy movie,” he said. Like any coach, Hood grew to resent him and needed to take away Norfolk’s scholarship, use it to attract a better player. A kid could quickly prove to be a bad investment, a mistake, and that left the coaches wishing he would get the message and go home, go anywhere. “You’re nodding your head,” Hood said, “so I know it’s happened to you, too.”
Pytel had, in fact, delivered the bad news of a withdrawn scholarship on two occasions. The first time he was overcome with guilt. The second time it felt good, taking a knucklehead down a notch.
“Like all our challenged students,” Hood continued, “Willie Norfolk developed a close relationship with the lady in charge of tutoring the team—a real slut, but that’s a story I’d need a few beers to tell. Anyway, by the time I realized we didn’t want Norfolk around he was already banging this lady, who actually had the same first name as the kid’s mother. Leah. That’s something that would keep most guys from bedding down an older woman.”
That spring, Hood gave Norfolk’s scholarship to another prospect, a much better player. Norfolk was not yet aware his full ride was gone though, and Hood needed him to drop out on his own accord: school policy handcuffed Hood, wouldn’t allow him to revoke a scholarship, unless a player had been arrested. He met with Norfolk, told him he didn’t fit into their plans, and although Hood cared about his future, he’d be better off at another college. Which was probably true. “If you try to fit a round peg in a square hole, you just fuck up the peg,” he said. But Norfolk said he wanted to stay, even if he had to ride the bench.
Almost on cue, as Pytel and Hood reached the city limits sign, miles from any service station, the driver-side tire on the Audi blew. Hood jerked the car onto the gravel shoulder and cursed. He had no idea, he admitted, how the car’s scissor jack worked.
Pytel could feel Hood’s resentment as his story was put on hold—going from boss to supplicant. Pytel immediately recognized it as an opportunity to show his resourcefulness. He popped the passenger door open and got out. “Want to unlatch the trunk?” he said, arms draped over the car’s roof, peering in. “I can change this thing, pronto.”
“You’ll do no such thing,” Hood said. “It’s not our problem.” He found a business card in the visor. “Royal Motors,” he snorted, and punched a number into his phone. “Put the owner on,” he said. He would not leave a message. Hood explained their situation a minute later, but sputtered over the specifics. “My location?” he said as he got out of the car. “It all looks the same to me.”
Pytel told him the name of the road, which Hood relayed before clapping the phone shut. That was when Hood noticed the shade of the telephone pole and invited Pytel to join him. He decided not ask Hood why they couldn’t simply wait in the car with the air-conditioning blasting. Instead, he figured he’d get to the point, his point anyway, although Hood had not concluded his story about Willie Norfolk. “What kind of person are you looking to hire?” he asked.
“It’s simple, really,” Hood said. “We can’t expect ghettoized players—overgrown children, really—to be loyal to anything. And a college’s loyalty goes only as far as a legal contract. But human loyalty, man to man—” He paused, stepped out of the shadow to face Pytel. The sun glistened off his slicked-back silver hair and momentarily blinded Pytel. “Loyalty, that’s all anyone in this business can cling to.”
Hood scowled, taking in the desolation around them. “Where the hell is that tow truck? Five minutes, my ass.”
Pytel pivoted and the two men faced the same direction. Without a word they inched sideways to remain in the long narrow shade.
“We’ve been stuck ten minutes,” Hood said moments later. “Still no fucking help.” He trudged back to the car, where he kicked the offending tire. “We’re outta here.”
Pytel followed, assuming Hood would lock it up and they’d call a taxi from the side of the road.
“You’re driving,” Hood said, and he lofted the keys to Pytel, who nearly flubbed the simple catch. “What a piece of shit this car turned out to be, huh?” Hood added. He slid into the passenger’s side and jabbed the flashers on before Pytel understood what he was being asked to do: possibly damage a car that simply needed a flat tire fixed. For a moment, he wondered about a confrontation—he could say he would not drive, would not screw up somebody else’s vehicle. He could toss the keys back. That would have ended the interview, he knew. Anyway, Hood looked so confident, relaxed. The car was, after all, his responsibility.
The low rumble of the flattened radial agitated the steering column immediately, and the tighter Pytel gripped, the more his arms shook. What about the rims he almost said, but understood this must be some sort of test, that Hood wanted to see how he’d react to the reckless stunt. He shut up, kept his speed down. Two passing cars beeped while their passengers pointed out the crippled car’s front tire.
“German engineering,” Hood said. “It’s an all-wheel drive. Now, back to my story about Willie Norfolk.” He reclined his seat. “I didn’t want to hurt him. But word came back that his eligibility hinged on a sociology paper due at the end of the semester. It was an evening class, one that half of our team enrolled in each year.”
The professor was a stickler for attendance and punctuality, and his class was the only hurdle in an easy major. If Norfolk didn’t screw up, he’d be fine, and he’d at least pull a “B.” Hood knew what was going on—Leah the tutor was writing the paper. Norfolk only had to sit by her side and try to comprehend what the words meant in case anyone got wise and started to ask questions.
“You see my dilemma?” Hood asked. “I wanted Norfolk to fail. I was hoping a good kid would flunk out.”
The grind of metal rim against the road began. When they ran over a small pothole, the jolt caused Pytel to bite the tip of his tongue. He struggled to keep the car straddled over the dotted line. The steel rim was digging a rut into the hot asphalt.
Hood shouted now over the grating noise. “We were in the last week of school, and our guys still played in pickup games. That Monday afternoon I had to interrupt them to tell a different player to get his sorry ass to the student health clinic before he infected any more coeds. On my way back up to the office, I saw Norfolk’s backpack on a seat. I knew it was his because it had his self-proclaimed nickname, The Duke, in gothic letters. Can you believe that? Duke Norfolk? Duke, my ass. The imposter. Just below his nickname was his sociology paper in a clear-blue plastic binder. I remember the title. Cultural Relativism and Values.”
Hood had hurried back to the office and called Leah the tutor, but just as he’d hoped, the call went instantly to her answering machine. Her office was closed for the day and there’d be no way for Norfolk to get another copy before class.
“I returned to the arena, to the power switches at the top row,” Hood said. “With my hand on the light switch, I gauged the distance down to the backpack. Then I killed the lights.”
Pytel imagined Hood creeping down the steps of the basketball arena in the dark, the players cursing.
“Willie Norfolk did not turn in his paper that evening,” Hood said. “So he flunked the class. We had our scholarship back. And I’ll tell you this, which might surprise you. He came to my office the next week to tell me he was going to fail, and we wept very real tears together. It was my duty to phone his mother, the other Leah, and let her know her son wasn’t going to succeed. I was sorry about what I’d done in every respect.” Hood powered down his window and spat. “Do you understand what I’m telling you, Pytel? I had to do the wrong thing for the right reason.”
“Got it,” said Pytel, although in that moment he wondered if he’d be liable for damage to a car he wasn’t supposed to be driving. He forced himself to focus on Hood’s story, which seemed to be mostly a device for Hood to show off how maniacal he was. Did he expect Pytel to agree, to say damn right? Admit to doing the same thing? Pytel had made complicated ethical decisions before, like any coach. But he’d never stolen a player’s homework and damned his future. Yet he sympathized with Hood’s choice—it only took a few non-players and soon enough you were losing games. That was precisely what doomed Jerry Conroy in the last few years—he’d gotten more concerned with philosophical issues than recruiting. Players who could not produce had to be weeded out, and that was why the real game being played was often the coaches against their players.
“The point,” Hood said, “in case you haven’t figured it out, is that I should have had an assistant coach who I trusted to take care of this. That’s where the loyalty part comes in.”
“Got it,” Pytel said again. This time he really did get it. And this drive was indeed a test. Hood was asking him, in effect, to demonstrate his devotion to putting together a good team.
“Would you have done that for me?” Hood asked dreamily. “Or, wait. Better yet. Would you have killed Norfolk’s chances without me even asking?”
Pytel wasn’t sure if he was expected to answer this time.
“You think about that,” Hood said, and he pointed out his own driveway. “Jesus, watch out, be careful of our new cactus. By the way, my wife is at home. You’d better make sure you’re able to deal with her, because you and I won’t get along if you can’t make peace with Vicky.”
IT’S A McMANSION, Pytel thought. That’s what Stephanie used to call houses whose garages were the prominent feature, places desperate to convey class with their gaudy bluster. Pytel had initially been enamored of their own historic home, a place that didn’t even have a garage, but it must have been cursed. The first of many problems was a busted irrigation system that left a slimy lake around the place. Stephanie had taken to stating their address as 2650 Misery instead of Missouri.
“This is my starter-castle,” Jack Hood said, leading him inside. Stained glass, vaulted ceilings, marble hallways. At the arched doorway, Hood handed him a phone. “You talk to the car dealer. It’s ringing. Tell them our new location.”
Vista del Rey Road, Pytel knew that much.
“The end of Vista del Rey,” Hood said, as if reading Pytel’s mind. “You might say we’re the only first-rate house with a second-rate car.”
Pytel stood in the doorway, his back to Hood, and asked for the service department. The mangled Audi was in full view. The belts of the tire had spanked and dented the paint on the fender’s panel. The tire, of course, was totally gone.
While on hold, Pytel could feel Hood move closer. “Put it on speaker phone,” Hood said. “I want to hear this.”
Pytel did, explaining their location to the service manager.
The man was irate. “What’s with you?” he shouted. “My best guy is going up and down Mesa Street searching for an Audi. What did you do, call Triple A?”
“We drove it home,” Pytel said. “Coach Hood had an important interview.”
“Oooh, good one,” Hood whispered, and Pytel instantly felt Hood’s hand on his shoulder.
The manager said they’d redirect the tow truck.
Someone was clacking down the stairs. A woman’s voice—and remarkably nuanced whistling. Pytel recognized the jazz standard, “Someday My Prince Will Come.”
VICKY HOOD BROUGHT smoked salmon sandwiches into the shade on the back patio, where a ceiling fan wobbled at high speed. Was she older than her husband or younger? Hard to determine because she kept her sunglasses on, indoors and out. She was thin but not athletic, her short blonde hair a dye job. They should go ahead and eat without her, she said. She was on a diet. When she returned with iced teas, Hood insisted she make him a Bloody Mary.
“For Chrissake,” she said, sitting down. “It’s Monday and it’s not even noon.”
“Come on,” he grumbled. “Can’t you do something around here besides spend my money?”
Vicky twisted to face Pytel. “Isn’t he grand? Tell me about Steve Pytel. Are you married?”
Hood grabbed his wife’s tumbler and took a sip.
“That’s water, Jack,” she said. “I can get you one, or you’re welcome to share mine.” Then to Pytel, she said, “It’s hard to believe that a woman with all I have to offer is still in love with Jack Hood. Let’s pretend he’s not here.”
Hood pushed back in disgust, the wrought iron chair grinding against the cement as the tire’s rim had earlier. He called Vicky a bitch and went inside.
“Who are you again?” she said. “I mean, why are you here?”
Pytel told her of his role on the previous staff, and how he’d been in charge of the program’s transition before Hood was hired. “I hope I can stay on with Coach Hood,” he added. This had been true an hour earlier, although now he wasn’t so certain. Stephanie would have plenty to say about his first assignment, driving five miles on a flat tire. He was, for the first time, aware there was now a chance he would be offered the job, but there wasn’t yet a single thing he liked about Jack Hood.
“Coach Hood,” she said. “Everyone says coach like he’s a doctor or something. He’s not, you know.” She gulped at her drink as if it really were liquor. “You could be our son’s age. If we had a son, I mean. You didn’t answer my initial question.”coach
“My wife teaches at Desert Crossing Elementary,” he said. “She enjoys her job, and she won’t leave.” He was trying to communicate his wife’s love of the town, but it came out more like a plea for sympathy, and Pytel wished he could answer again.
“So it’s not just your career that concerns you,” she said. “It’s understandable then, why you’d be groveling. Listen, I like to make it clear to everyone Jack interviews, just so there won’t be any surprises.”
Pytel inched forward in his seat and studied her dark glasses.
She said, “He is the worst person I know. If it wasn’t for the fact that he so dreadfully needs me, I’d have left him years ago. Years!” She laughed as if this was the funniest thing she’d ever heard.
“I’m sure you’re joking,” Pytel said.
“Jack told me that if he keeps you, you’d make a lot more than your previous salary. How about that? It makes him look common to have a staff with pathetic salaries.”
“That could make me happy,” Pytel said, knowing a sizable increase was likely impossible. The lead story in the latest campus newspaper detailed a faculty senate resolution complaining about Hood’s new salary.
“I’m going to change the subject, sweetie,” she said, and she lifted her sunglasses. “Do you see these bruises under my eyes?”
Pytel could not make out any bruises in the shadows of the patio, and he said so. She stood, nearly toppled, and gained her balance on the solid chair. She let go slowly, as if experimenting. Pytel wondered if Hood’s hunch was correct, that she had been drinking. As she stepped out of the darkness into the sunshine, she spun back to Pytel like a runway model. “Look,” she said, and turned her head from side to side in the direct light, as if she were being slapped. There were indeed bruises just to the outside and below each eye, above her cheekbones. Pytel imagined the sound of Hood backhanding her. He felt sick.
She walked back to the table in a straight line, as if sobered up by the slaps, or the noonday sun, and she put her hand over Pytel’s. He halfway expected her to begin weeping, but she smiled. “It’s not what you think,” she said. “That’s twenty grand for plastic surgery by the same doctor who fixed up Ginger Spice, and it was worth every one of Coach Hood’s dollars. He’ll be making that each week now and I’ll be a new woman by the end of the year, with all new parts. You go to a new job, you might as well be a new person, right? But we’ll be stuck with the same Jack Hood.” She sighed. “Eat, there’s no telling when he’ll be back.”
THE HUM OF the tow truck seemed to shake the patio’s tile. With that deep sound came a rumbling of dread in Pytel’s gut.
“Pytel,” Hood called from inside, “your tow truck is here.”
The living room held only the couch, a large-screen television, and an enormous portrait above the fake fireplace of Hood in a white suit. The new coach was sprawled out on the couch in the living room, his feet propped up, Bloody Mary in hand, reading an old sports section that Pytel recognized: one that announced Hood’s own hiring. Ten years ago Hood had been one of the hottest head coaches in the country until his program crashed amid a transcript-fixing scandal. His next job in the East, and his eventual success, was his rebirth. The article quoted a Dean at that school as saying they were glad Hood was departing.
“Go down and deal with this guy,” Hood said as he swung his feet to the floor and folded the paper neatly into his armpit. “I’m going to observe your people skills.”
Pytel paused at the top of the steps for a moment before descending. The tow truck driver walked around the car, scratched his head and mumbled. He had on a red work shirt with “Royal Imports” embroidered above one pocket, and a patch that read “Larry” above the other. He was squat, barely five feet tall, muscled like a rugby player—the kind of guy who might resent tall people—and his ears stuck out from under his matching red cap. On his left forearm was a tattoo of crossed swords. “You Jack Hood?” Larry asked.
“He’s in the doorway up there,” Pytel said, and offered his handshake as a consolation.
Hood was leaning in the door’s arched frame, twenty yards behind Pytel. He didn’t wave or speak. Halfway through one drink, he had a second one in his other hand, at the ready. Pytel was near enough to the house that Hood could see they were talking, but far enough that he probably couldn’t hear everything.
“What the hell happened?” Larry asked. “This is a fifty-thousand dollar car. Do you know the cost of just one of these wheels?”
Pytel spoke softly. “We had an important meeting,” he said, “we had to get here for a conference call. He couldn’t wait any longer.”
Larry lowered himself, chest down, to the place where the tire used to be.
“Did you bring a new tire?” Pytel said. It was a stupid question, but he couldn’t think of anything else to say.
“Yeah, right, a new tire,” Larry said. “You guys ruined the rim. There’s been a helluva lot of damage.” He push-upped himself to a kneeling position and looked to the house for some kind of explanation, but Hood was gone. “Not only is the rim ruined,” he said, “and the axle bent, but the entire hub assembly has been destroyed. Not to mention the axle bearings, which are likely shot. This is going to cost you a fortune to fix.”
Pytel knew he couldn’t exactly apologize, so he launched into a sort of these-things-happen doublespeak.
Larry cut him off. “What’s the matter with you people?” he said, dusting off his knees. “Why would you do something like this?”
Pytel thought the guy might want to fight, the way he was shaking his arms out. He realized instead that Larry was close to weeping, as if the car had been his own Christmas present. “Listen,” Pytel said, “I know how you feel, but I’m not really responsible. Jack Hood is, the guy who was in the doorway a minute ago. Money doesn’t mean anything to him, he can easily afford it.” In that moment, Pytel understood that Hood would never pay for the damage. He’d expect the dealer to cover the cost. Hood came back in the doorway, just one Bloody Mary in hand, Vicky behind him. He raised his glass in a silent toast.
“You shouldn’t worry about it,” Pytel said, louder this time. “That’s all I’m saying.”
“That’s not the point, the money,” Larry said. “It’s a senseless way to treat an automobile. It’s criminal.”
“Get that piece of junk off our property!” Vicky yelled. Hood shooed her back into the house. He reappeared alone.
“He’s our new basketball coach,” Pytel said. Vicky screamed something else from inside but it was muffled.
“I don’t care if he’s the King of Siam,” Larry said. “What an asshole.”
Larry returned to car, and he began hissing what an asshole, as if that might somehow patch and inflate the tire. He returned to all fours and shortened his chant to asshole as he crawled around, occasionally rising and dusting off his pants again before he resumed the angry mantra.
“Come on, stop saying that, okay?” Pytel said. “This isn’t your car, and it’s not coming out of your paycheck.”
Larry ignored his request, shook his head as if trying to decide his next step.
Hook the Audi up and tow it away, Pytel thought. Simple. He finally suggested as much.
“I’m going to have to flatbed this vehicle,” Larry said with an air of importance that irritated Pytel. “I’ve got to call in for a bigger truck and get all four wheels off the ground.”
“We’ll be here,” Pytel said, and then quietly, “You’re taking this too hard.”
Larry started in again with the chant, and he slowly rocked his head in time to the word before he paused to eye Pytel. “You’re no better than him,” he said. “You could have stopped him. The flunky of an asshole.”
Larry lumping him in the same dumpster as Jack Hood made Pytel sweat. This is what he got for being the peacemaker. And all this for a man who probably was an asshole. Pytel would go home, tell his wife what happened, and admit he was out of a job. Maybe he could convince her to let him go on the job market. That meant talking her into leaving town. He couldn’t see himself taking classes to get a teaching certificate. Vicky Hood had called it groveling, and she was right. And groveling for what? To hook on with a guy he couldn’t stand.
The sun was behind the front porch now, or Hood had stepped deeper into the shadows so Pytel could no longer clearly see him. It was getting hotter by the minute. Larry was on his feet now, still repeating that word. Asshole. He turned over his shoulder to say it again. When Pytel shoved him—with both hands on his back—he hadn’t planned to knock him over. But Larry tried to pivot and his heel caught on the edge of the driveway. He stumbled to get his footing and spun, as one arm circled wildly for balance. He fell backward onto a clump of cacti.
Pytel immediately knew his own coaching career—at State, or anywhere else—was dead. That might have been a relief, but when this incident made the newspaper, he’d have to leave town in disgrace. Even a high school teaching job was out. They couldn’t continue their house payments on one salary. His realization of what would transpire over the next month stunned him: he’d apply for coaching jobs that he couldn’t get if this story got out. If he left town, Stephanie would remain, and she’d move into a townhouse alone. But where would he go, now that he was done with both Jack Hood and maybe even with college basketball?
He stepped gingerly over the jagged rocks to pull Larry up, but Hood appeared somehow and slid in front of him. It was only then Pytel understood that the tow truck man was impaled on a cactus and couldn’t move.
“LET’S CELEBRATE,” Vicky said as she closed the front door and locked it. “Who wants a drink?” she asked Pytel.
“Victoria, please shut up,” Hood said.
They stood together at the edge of the picture window and watched two grim-faced Hispanic men lug a massive chain and hook it to the rear axle of the Audi. The men had not beeped or bothered to ring the doorbell to get permission from anyone in the house. Larry had refused Hood’s offer of an ambulance and was waiting in the second truck. The tow truck dragged the Audi onto the back of the new and larger truck. “I wanted a gold one anyway,” Hood said.
Vicky handed Pytel a Bloody Mary. He took a slug and thanked her. The drink was more vodka than tomato juice. “I’m screwed now,” he said to nobody in particular. “That guy will probably have me arrested or sue me,” he added, and nodded at the window. He didn’t expect an answer, and he didn’t know whether to walk home or call a lawyer. Or toss the rest of his drink in Hood’s face.
“We saw him try to punch you first,” Vicky said. “Didn’t we, Jack? And you ducked, right? That was clearly self-defense.”
Pytel’s cell phone rang and he was about to switch it off when he saw it was the fertility clinic. He excused himself and retreated to the back porch with the wobbly ceiling fan.
“Your sperm count is normal,” the nurse said. Pytel thanked her. This was important news. “And they’re good little swimmers,” she continued. “It’s like I told your wife. When you’re ready, it’ll happen.”
“I’m ready,” Pytel said, although it was none of her business. He and Stephanie could proceed, his embarrassment about the entire procedure now behind him. He started back towards the front of the house. Not that he was about to share this good news with Jack Hood.
“Well,” the nurse said, “I mean when you’re both ready.”
Weeks later, though, going through the medicine cabinets, Pytel would find her birth control pills, check the prescription date, and remember the nurse’s choice of words. Stephanie must have had doubts at the clinic, told the nurse that she was not yet prepared to commit to a child with him.
“Finish your drink,” Hood called.
Pytel returned to the picture window in time to witness the trucks drive off with the damaged Audi. Hood told his wife to fetch the keys for her sedan. “I can drive,” he said. “I’ve got work to do at the office. Hurry up.”
“You drive?” Vicky said. “Isn’t that how you got into this mess?” She dangled the keys in front of him, but snatched them back when her husband reached. Hood grabbed her sunglasses off her face instead and tossed them across the empty tiled room. He said, “I was not driving that damaged vehicle.” He pointed his drink at Pytel. “He was.”
“I’m on my first vodka,” she said, “and you’re over the limit. Every limit.” She reached for Pytel’s arm and pulled him out the front door.
Vicky’s sedan was in the massive garage; the backseat was jammed to the roof with moving boxes. She got behind the wheel. “You sit in the middle,” she said to Pytel. “He is an asshole,” she added in a whisper, as if she’d heard every word the tow truck man had said.
Remains of the tire, shards and strips, were strewn across the road like a trail of clues in a fucked-up fairy tale. A buzzard was pulling at one piece and didn’t move even as the sedan whizzed by. Hood said how disappointed he was in the way the episode had turned out. “Pytel, you’ve got to learn to keep your cool,” he said, “even if you never coach another day. I don’t care what sort of names the tow truck driver was calling you. Your reaction was unacceptable. What kind of coach loses his head like that?”
Pytel nearly told him to fuck off.
“Restraint, that is what I’m talking about,” Hood said, as if in response to Pytel’s thoughts. “You’ve got to learn restraint.” Hood had surprised Pytel with the tenderness he displayed in lifting Larry off the cactus.
“Just offer Mister Pytel the goddamn job right now,” Vicky said, “or are you waiting for him to inflict more damage in your name?”
“Victoria, for the love of God, I’m trying to teach this man something about life. And throw that drink out the window.”
“Make the offer,” she shouted. “Double his salary.”
Pytel couldn’t stifle a sarcastic laugh.
Vicky pressed down the power window and tossed the entire tumbler out, but not before winding up, so most of her Bloody Mary splattered on Pytel’s neck and chest, coloring the front of his shirt a weak red. Ice cubes from her drink began melting at his beltline.
“Oh, take that shirt off right now,” she said. “We’ll stop for a bottle of club soda to make sure it doesn’t stain.”
Hood grabbed his dripping forearm, as if Pytel might indeed disrobe. “Who’s doing the damage now, my dearest?” he said.
“I apologize, Mister Pytel,” she said. “Send me the cleaning bill, okay? But did you know that tomato juice is the only remedy to get the smell of a skunk off you? Think about that for a minute.”
“Do you see what I mean?” Hood asked him. “Restraint. Keep your composure. Look at me. I will not shove her ass-first onto a cactus like you might, although it’s certainly tempting. And I’m not telling her the precise place on her person that she should have shoved her tomato juice. Instead I take a deep breath and remind myself who’s in control here. Why don’t you do that with me now? Let’s draw a slow deep breath together.”
There was no harm in that, so Pytel did, in unison with Hood, exhaling at the same instant. He imagined himself blowing out his anger.
Hood no doubt thought Pytel had flunked his big test. Things would get awkward for Pytel when he got home. Stephanie would be thrilled he wasn’t coaching, but that joy would evaporate if he told her he’d decided he still wasn’t ready to walk away from the game. Maybe he’d wait a day to bring that up, see if the guy from Royal Motors had called the police. And exactly what would he do then for work?
“I want Mister Pytel on your staff,” Vicky said.
Hood ignored her. “That’s where we were stranded,” Hood said, a new happiness in his voice. “That’s where it all began.” He pointed at the tracks, the sandy gravel of the shoulder where they had first veered off the road, what felt like weeks ago. The afternoon sun was even hotter, and the shadows of the telephone poles spread across the arid landscape. Hood asked his wife to pull over, but Vicky refused. “Jesus, Victoria,” he said. “That was our stop.”
“Are you kidding?” she asked. “I’m not going to leave you there like a couple of fools. You wouldn’t be any better off than you were four hours ago. Just offer him the goddamned job before we get to school.” Then to Pytel: “Your seatbelt isn’t buckled. Buckle up.”
Pytel obeyed, struggling to find the loose ends. His throat was parched, the price of drinking liquor in the desert. He felt cramped, wedged between Hood and his wife like an overgrown child, knees together. His feet, balanced on the hump, had gone dead, and the sensation, or lack of it, crept up his legs.
“Jesus, that sun is powerful,” Hood said, dickering with the visor. “This was a productive day. I’m really impressed by your sense of loyalty, Pytel, although I don’t agree with your crazy methods. You’ve got potential.” He crossed his arms and appraised Pytel. “I guess the job is yours.”
“Oh,” said Pytel.
“Thank you,” Vicky said.
“Whatever your salary was, count on getting twice that.” Hood slapped him on the leg. “You’ll have your house paid for in ten years,” he said, somehow doing the math before Pytel could.
Pytel had practically walked away from the business minutes before. He’d tell his wife he was certain he could again some day. And he’d share the good news about his fertility.
“Congratulations,” Vicky added. The car slowed, and Hood put his hand on Pytel’s reassuringly, a fatherly gesture.
“We’ll be good together,” Hood said.