In the end, write it down. Back up and find the story. Mr. Simet, my English and journalism teacher, says the best way to write a story, be it fact or fiction, is to believe aliens will find it someday and make a movie, and you don’t want them making Ishtar. The trick is to dig out the people and events that connect, and connect them. No need to worry about who’s wearing Nike and who’s wearing Reebok, or anybody’s hat size or percentage of body fat. Like Jack Webb on the Dragnet series on Nick at Nite says, “Just the facts, ma’am. Just the facts.”
The facts. I’m black. And Japanese. And white. Politically correct would be African-American, Japanese-American and what? Northern European-American? God, by the time I wrote all that on a job application the position would be filled. Besides, I’ve never been to Africa, never been to Japan, and don’t even know which countries make up Northern Europe. Plus, I know next to nothing about the individuals who contributed all that exotic DNA, so it’s hard to carve out a cultural identity in my mind. So: Mixed. Blended. Pureed. Potpourri.
Big deal; so was Superman.
And like Superman, I was adopted by great people. The woman I call Mom-who is Mom-Abby Jones, was in the hospital following her fourth miscarriage (and final attempt at the miracle of birth) where she met my biological mother, Glenda, right after my presumed bio-dad, Stephan, had assisted in my natural childbirth only to come eyeball-to-eyeball with the aforementioned UNICEF poster boy. A second-generation German-American married to a woman of Swiss-Norwegian descent, he was a goner before my toes cleared the wet stuff. Any way he matched up the fruit flies, he couldn’t come up with me. Because my mom is one of those magic people with the natural capacity to make folks in shitty circumstances feel less shitty, she consoled Glenda and even brought her home until she could get her feet on the ground. Evidently Glenda was as surprised as Stephan; she’d had a one-night stand with my sperm donor to get even for a good thumping and had no idea the tall black-Japanese poet’s squiggly swimmer was the one in a billion to crash through to the promised land.
Things sped rapidly downhill for Glenda as a single mother, and two years later, when she brought Child Protection Services crashing down on herself, getting heavily into crack and crank and heavily out of taking care of me, she remembered Mom’s kindness, tracked her down and begged her to take me. Mom and Dad didn’t blink-almost as if they were expecting me, to hear them tell it-and all of a sudden I was the rainbow-coalition kid of two white, upwardly mobile ex-children of the sixties.
Actually, only Mom was upwardly mobile. She’s a lawyer, working for the assistant attorney general’s office, mostly on child-abuse cases. Dad likes motorcycles; he’s just mobile.
We never did hear from Glenda again, Mom says probably because the separation was too painful, and shameful. Sometimes I find myself longing for her, just to see or talk with her, discover more about the unsettledness within me; but most of the time that ache sits in a shaded corner of my mind, a vague reminder of what it is not to be wanted. At the same time all that seems out of place, because I remember nothing about her, not what she looked like or the sound of her voice or even the touch of her hand. I do admit to having a few laughs imagining how history rewrote itself inside Stephan’s head when my shiny brown head popped out.
It’s interesting being “of color” in a part of the country where Mark Fuhrman has his own radio talk show. My parents have always encouraged me to be loud when I run into racism, but I can’t count on racism being loud when it runs into me. Very few people come out and say they don’t like you because you aren’t white; when you’re younger it comes at a birthday party you learn about after the fact, or later, having a girl say yes to a date only to come back after discussing it with her parents, having suddenly remembered she has another engagement that night. Not much to do about that but let it register and don’t forget it. I learned in grade school that the color of a person’s skin has to do only with where their way-long-ago ancestors originated, so my mind tells me all racists are either ignorant or so down on themselves they need somebody to be better than. Most of the time telling myself that works. Once in a while my gut pulls rank on my mind, and I’m compelled to get ugly.
I called “All News All Talk Radio” a couple of days after the first time I heard the spectacularly racially sensitive ex-L.A. detective giving Spokane and the rest of the Inland Empire the hot poop on big-time crime fighting. The talk show I called had featured the mayors of an eastern Washington and a north Idaho town declaring that the racist label put on this region is undeserved, blown out of proportion due to the presence of the Aryan Nations fort over in Hayden Lake, Idaho, and the existence of several small militias spread out between central Washington and eastern Montana.
The mayors had departed when the talk-jock finally said, “We’re talking with T. J. from Cutter, about fifty miles outside our great city.”
I said, “So this racist label, it’s undeserved?”
“I believe it is,” he said. “An entire region can’t be held responsible for the ignorant actions of a few. Certainly you can’t argue with that.”
“You’re right,” I said. “I can’t. But if the racist label is about perceptions, and in this case, undeserved perceptions, why would you guys have the Mark Fuhrman show?”
“Have you tuned in to Mark’s show?”
“Not purposely,” I said, “but I was scanning the stations and landed right on him.”
“How long did you listen?”
“Long enough to convince myself it was really him, that you guys weren’t just pulling my chain.”
“Then you heard a man who knows a lot about crime prevention and an accomplished professional radio man.”
I said, “His voice was okay.”
The jock said, “What’s your point, T. J.?”
“That if you guys are running the most powerful AM station in the region and you’re worried about people’s perceptions of that region as racist, you might think twice before you give one of the true icons of racism in this country two hours of drive-time radio every week.”
“We didn’t hire Mark to talk about race relations. We hired him to talk about criminals and the criminal mind, and about the intricacies of police work. He’s written books on the subject, you know.”
“You didn’t hire him because of his famous name?”
“No, sir, we did not.”
“So when you decided your listeners needed to learn about Spokane, Washington, police work, you figured you’d get better expertise from a dishonored ex-L.A. cop rather than some retired veteran Spokane cop who might have covered Spokane ’s streets for twenty-five or thirty years?”
He said, “How old are you?”
“What does that matter?”
“You sound like a kid.”
“You tell me why that matters, and I’ll tell you how old I am.”
“It matters because if you’re too young, you might lack the experience to carry on this conversation intelligently.”
“I’m a fifty-six-year-old retired Spokane policeman,” I said, and paused a moment. “Guess I don’t have the voice for it.” I hung up.
I’m really not bothered by the race thing most of the time; at least I can say I don’t bring it up first. And I’ve never wanted to be anyone else, and I don’t want to be any other color. My bio-daddy must have had a pretty good brain because I have a big-time I.Q. and, Simet says, monster talent in articulation, plus I’m almost six-two and just a little under two hundred pounds. I can stuff a basketball from a standstill, and I’ve been clocked in a little more than ten-point-four seconds for a hundred meters. When I was thirteen, I qualified for the Junior Olympics in two swimming events, and I’m even a pretty fair cowboy, having spent parts of three summers at Little Britches Rodeo Camp. That’s a pretty fair r'esum'e for a guy who, until this year, never participated in one second of organized high school sports.
And I’m not hard to look at. Mr. Simet says I look like Tiger Woods on steroids, so I get plenty of chances to socialize. For every girl whose parents are terrified of a muddied gene pool, there’s a girl who would use me as a threat to do just that. And there are plenty of girls who don’t care one way or the other.
The truly unique thing about me isn’t my racial heritage, or my brain or my size or my athletic abilities. Momma Glenda didn’t leave me with much to remember her by, but she certainly left me with the all-time moniker. A lot of kids whose parents grew up in the hippie generation have names like Autumn or Somber or Twilight or Destiny. Who knows what their parents were smoking to name them after seasons or moods or times of day, but good old Glenda went them one better, naming me in her “spiritual” period. She may have been a little too “spiritual” on mood-altering funstuff to imagine my first day in kindergarten.
“Tell everyone your first name when your turn comes,” Mrs. Herrick said, nodding to the pencil-necked, tow-headed kid next to me. The kid said, “Roger.”
I said, “The.”
“The.” She should have said, “Tell everyone what people call you.”
The other kids giggled. My fists clenched, blood rushing into my head.
Mrs. Herrick said, “Uh, do you have a middle name?”
“Tao,” I said, pronouncing it correctly as “Dow.”
“Your name is The Tao? What kind of name is that?”
I shrugged. “Mine.”
To her credit, Mrs. Herrick glanced at her class roster to see if I was telling the truth and moved on, but as you might guess, that wasn’t the end of it.
“It’s a book,” I told Sue Eldridge and Ronnie Blackburn later, my back against the jackets hanging on hooks at the rear of the room. I was as yet unaware it is also an entire philosophy.
“Why did your mother give you the same name as a book?” Sue asked.
“Just did.” I wanted to explain that my real mother, Abby, didn’t do that; that it was my buy-O mother, but I hadn’t been real successful articulating that in the past.
Ronnie laughed and turned to the rest of the class, who were pulling on their coats for recess. “His mom gave him the same name as a book!” he yelled to them. Then a light clicked above his head. “Hey,” he said, “me, too. My mom gave me the same name as a book, too. I’m Curious George!” He squealed in delight, falling to the floor between giggles, scratching under his arms like an ape.
Suddenly he was struggling to push my knee off his chest.
“Stop!” Mrs. Herrick yelled, but I punched Ronnie Blackburn in the nose anyway. It was the beginning of a series of unplanned three-day vacations that would dot my educational career like chicken pox.
But there’s worse news about my handle, and if you’ve been paying attention, you know what it is: My health dictates the health of the nation’s economy.
“How’s your son doing, Mr. Jones!”
“The Tao’s up today, sir.”
“That’s good news. Try to keep him happy.”
Think I don’t get carried away with those? To avoid confusion, and raucous laughter whenever my name is mentioned, I’m called T. J.
It’s over now. I’m at the end of the summer following my senior year in high school; I have my diploma in a lockbox and the advantage of hindsight. But I want to tell it without that advantage-tell it as it unfolded-Mr. Simet says any story is only true in the moment.
My father always said there are no coincidences; that when two seemingly related events occur, they are related and should be treated that way. My father had very good reasons to try to understand how the universe works, which I’m sure I’ll get into later.
The seemingly related things that I believe kick this story off happen on the second day of school. Coaches have tried to get me to turn out for sports since junior high. Sometimes they’re insistent and sometimes downright nasty, accusing me of lacking the high school equivalent of patriotism, even to the point of calling me a traitor. But I’ve always eluded them. I’ll play basketball three or four hours nonstop on open gym night, and I’ve always taken a couple of guys to Hoopfest in Spokane, which is the largest three-on-three street-basketball tournament in the country, and my team has won its division every time. I think I could have been a pretty fair football player; I’m sure not afraid to take a hit or to put a good lick on a guy, but something inside me recoils at being told what to do, and that doesn’t sit well with most coaches, who are paid to do exactly that. I don’t blame them; I know it’s me. But the better you know yourself, the better chance you have of staying clear of trouble, and I’m pretty sure I’d never have lasted a full season of football with Coach Benson or basketball with Coach Roundtree. At one point or another in the heat of a game, Benson and Roundtree retreat to the time-tested and highly grating tool of public humiliation as a motivator, and that particular tool brings me back in your face faster than a yo-yo on a bungee cord, at which time I immediately suspend the notion of giving a shit.
So why was I considering joining a swim team that didn’t exist before this year when I haven’t been competitive in the water since fourteen, except for trying to beat Dad into the shower every morning? It’s Simet. He catches me after third-period English and says, “Jones, didn’t you used to be a pretty good swimmer?”
“I’m still a pretty good swimmer,” I say. “Wanna try me?” Simet and I enjoy a longstanding rivalry wherein one of us challenges the other to some athletic contest. We handicap it based on our abilities (he lies like a student with a term paper due to get an advantage) and then make a friendly wager, say my English grade against some unsavory task he needs done, like stirring his compost heap when the temperature rises above eighty, or washing and waxing his Humvee, which looks better dirty.
He says, “I want to try you, but not against me.”
“Someone different every week.”
Visions of age-group swimming pop up: permanently chlorinated hair and eyes, clogged sinuses, ear infections. “This has a familiar ring.”
“What do you think?”
“That you generally give me less information than I need to make an informed decision.”
He gathers his books and nods toward the parking lot. “Hop into my babe-mobile and I’ll buy you a milk shake. Maybe a pizza. We’ll talk.”
I follow him down the hall. “Make it a steak. Something is sick and wrong here.”
“Let’s hope it takes you a while to figure out what it is.”
At Solomon’s Pizza, Simet tells me that Mr. Morgan, the principal, asked him to replace Mr. Packenbush as assistant wrestling coach, who’s resigning due to reasons of health. In a burst of panic, Simet told Morgan he’s been trying to get a swimming team going, since Cutter is one of only three high schools in the conference without one.
I say, “Morgan, of course, pointed out that we don’t have a pool.”
“Way ahead of him,” he says back. “I told him I could get free workout time at All Night Fitness, which I’m praying will actually be true.”
“The pool at All Night is twenty yards,” I remind him, “with an underwater ledge at the shallow end that will give you a subdural hematoma if you flip your turn.” A subdural hematoma is what happens to your brain if you get whacked on the head hard enough to bounce it off the inside of your skull. I hear that term a lot when my mom is trying a child-abuse case.
Simet says I’m mucking things up with details-
“With only four lanes-”
– making it more difficult than it had to be.
“-and a ladder smack in the middle of one of them.”
I should think of it as a challenge.
“Every meet would be away,” I tell him. “No teams would come here to swim. In a twenty-yard pool, records don’t count.”
“All part of what makes an insurmountable obstacle interesting,” he says. “A perennial road team. Mermen without a pond.”
“You’re forgetting something else. Nobody I swam with in age-group swimming lives here. There can’t be three real swimmers in this entire school.”
He considers that a minute, takes a bite of pizza and a long swallow on his beer. “I’m going off the record here,” he says. “Educators are supposed to stick together and not bad-mouth one another, so we can collectively stay ahead of the educatees. But do you know Coach Murphy?”
Murphy is sixty-eight years old, having received divine dispensation to teach till two days after he dies, and I have judiciously avoided taking PE or health classes from him for four years. He tolerates zero bullshit or less. “Yeah, I know Coach Murphy.”
“Then you know what my life would be like as his assistant.” He leans forward. “I have my ways, Jones. If I go down, you go with me, which is to say if I coach wrestling, you wrestle. You have completed six semesters of English. You need eight. Think how easy it would be for me to misplace your records a week before graduation or remove a leg from one of your A’s. You’d be caught at Cutter High School like a rat in a Twilight Zone cage.”
“They’re really willing to let you have this team? No facility, no swimmers?”
“One swimmer,” he says.
“One used-to-be swimmer,” I say back.
“T. J., I’ve looked at some of your old times. You were phenomenal. And I’ve coached some big-time swimmers, guys headed for the trials. Tell you what, I can whip you into good-enough shape to get us points at State, which would elevate Cutter in the overall all-sport state championship.”
“Spock, are you out of your Vulcan mind?” I ask in my best William Shatner, which isn’t all that bad.
Simet fixes his gaze on the table. “Actually, that’s why they agreed. I told them you were a lock. If I don’t come through, they’ll sue for malpractice.”
“You mean if I don’t come through, they’ll sue for malpractice.”
“If it’s the same thing, you swim.”
He nods at the remaining slice of pizza and says, “Go ahead and eat that,” which means he is desperate. He glances at his watch as I snap it up. “You don’t have to answer tonight. I’ll give you twelve hours.”
It could be worse. Simet is a guy who always teaches you something, and it’s not always about English or journalism. He was a hell of a swimmer himself in his younger years, when dinosaurs roamed the planet, and he seldom lets his classes forget what a spiritual experience it is to test yourself against that particular element. And though I burned out on it back then, I remember what amazing solace I felt working out. Up until I started swimming in grade school, half my teachers wanted me medicated and the other half wanted me in reform school. It helped me focus, beveled the edges on my boundless, uncontrolled energy, dulled my rage. All things considered, it is enough to make me consider Simet’s proposal.
And here comes the kicker, the thing my father would say couldn’t be a coincidence. I’m walking out of Simet’s room the next day, thinking if I go along with him, I’ll be breaking a career-long rule banning myself from organized sports while playing as many disorganized sports as time in my life allows. I mean, I love athletics. When I’m gliding to the hoop in a pickup game, or gunning some guy down at home plate from center field in a summer vacant-lot game, or falling into a perfect pace five miles out on a run, I feel downright godlike. But those things I do on my own. Cutter is such a jock school; they pray before games and cajole you to play out of obligation, and fans scream obscenities at one another from the stands, actually creating rivalries between towns, which has always seemed crazy to me. I remember my freshman year when the entire town was actually happy because the stud running back from Jackson Quarry became ineligible because of grades. Our educational community got giddy because some kid they didn’t know tanked his math class. I mean, fifteen seconds after I finish a three-on-three game at Hoopfest, I’m sitting on the curb sharing Gatorade with the guys on the other team, talking about moves they put on me, and vice versa. Why would anyone want his opponent not to be at his best?
I’m on a roll there, but the point is that athletics has become such a big thing here that our administration begins each year figuring ways to pile up points for this all-sport state championship. And the symbol, the Shroud of Turin for Cutter High athletes, is the letter jacket. A block C on a blue-and-gold leather-and-wool jacket at Cutter High School is worth a whole bunch of second chances in the front office, of which I’m still waiting for my first. Those who don’t own one of those jackets can easily become victims of our zero-tolerance policy. Well, in the eyes of The Tao Jones, nothing is true without its opposite, and it has been my minor quest to make sure that the finest athlete at Cutter High School did his very best to never earn that jacket. I should also say I’m not totally righteous in my quest for athletic purity. When I was an age-group swimmer I was driven. It consumed me, and I get uneasy thinking of becoming that focused on it again.
Variation on the theme. I’m moving catlike through the halls toward my locker minutes after Simet has challenged me to become the Mark Spitz of the desert (we don’t have a swimming pool) and run into Mike Barbour-linebacker extraordinaire and student most likely to graduate with multiple felonies-jacking up Chris Coughlin against the lockers by the drinking fountain because Chris is wearing his dead brother’s letter jacket.
Chris Coughlin is big-time special ed. He’s mainstreamed into PE and industrial arts, but spends most of his time in Resource Room improving his reading skills enough to read traffic signs and memorizing the intricacies of basic addition and subtraction. Everyone knows Chris’s story: born addicted to crack cocaine, then got a double dose of shit just after his first birthday when his mother’s boyfriend wrapped his face in Saran Wrap to make him stop crying. At his sentencing the boyfriend said he only wanted to make Chris pass out, not cause permanent brain damage. Oops.
Anyway, Chris’s aunt and uncle took him and did all they could to make it up to him, but they couldn’t regenerate brain cells. Chris’s older half-brother, Brian, was raised by his own biological father and is something of a legend around Cutter from four or five years ago for having gained more yards in football and for hitting more home runs in baseball than any Cutter Wolverine before or since, and for being drafted into the Cincinnati Reds farm system out of high school. He was destined to have a street or a small park named after him someday, but was killed in a freak rock-climbing accident in the spring of his senior year. That about did poor old Chris in. He didn’t have much, but he had a famous big brother. Brian was a real class act: good student, good athlete, great guy. The only times I remember seeing Chris smile were when he rode behind Brian on his dirt bike, or later, after Brian was gone, when he’d brag to anyone who would listen every time he passed Brian’s picture in the trophy case. They didn’t live together, but Brian sure let everyone know Chris was his brother, and if you messed with Chris back in those days-he was an easy mark-you could expect a visit from Brian.
So Barbour has the jacket buttoned at the bottom and pulled down around Chris’s shoulders so he can’t move his arms, and his nose is about an inch from Chris’s. I can’t hear what he’s saying, but tears squirt out of Chris’s terrified eyes and his entire body trembles. I hustle over and insert myself between them, put an arm over Chris’s shoulder, and say, “What’s the matter, buddy? You look like you’ve been staring into a giant asshole,” and move him a few steps down the hall, adjusting the jacket. Chris is hyperventilating, barely able to breathe.
“When you see one of those,” I tell him, loud enough for Barbour to hear, “you gotta close your eyes and pretend it’s not there. ’Course it helps if you also hold your breath.”
Barbour’s hand clamps onto my shoulder, and I turn in mock surprise. “Barbour! ’Sup, man?”
“I was talking to him, shithead.”
“That’s Mister Shithead to you. You were talking to my buddy Chris? He has to get to class. I run his complaint department, though, right, Chris?”
Still speechless, Chris nods.
Barbour says, “Fine. I’ll tell you. Next time I see him in this jacket, I’ll take it off him and burn it. You earn one of these if you’re gonna wear it at this school, something you’re too chickenshit to know anything about. It’s an honor to wear these colors. You don’t put on the jacket your brother earned. That’s an athletic department rule.”
I say, “Doesn’t apply. Chris isn’t in the athletic department,” and Barbour says, “Yeah, well, in this school an athletic department rule is a school rule.”
“Guess that wasn’t in my orientation packet,” I say. “What’s the matter with you, Barbour? You know the deal with Coughlin’s brother. Is this prick thing habitual, or do you work at it?”
“One of these days you’re going to find out, Jones.”
“I lie awake nights, waiting for that day.”
Barbour says, “I’ll save my energy for a white man.”
“Because of your limited I.Q. I’ll give you one of those, my friend. One more will get us both a three-day suspension.” Barbour’s family is famous for their send-all-the-Japs-back-to-Japan-with-a-nigger-under-each-arm attitude, so I feel like I have to hold my own.
We stand facing each other a few seconds, and finally Barbour reiterates the athletic department’s zero-tolerance position on letter jackets and walks away. I pat Chris’s shoulder and tell him not to worry about it and start for class, but look back to see him stuffing the jacket into his locker, trying in vain to cram it behind his books.
I walk back, pull the jacket out, and hand it to him. “Chris, you can wear it. It’s okay.”
“He said it was a rule.”
“He lied. You can wear it anytime you want.”
“He said the athletic department gots a rule.”
“It belonged to your brother, Chris. You wear it. If Barbour gives you any more trouble, you come tell me, okay?”
Chris stares at me.
“Okay.” He says it without conviction.
As I turn the corner for class, I glance back again, and Coughlin is frantically stuffing the jacket back into the locker.
I stay in the afternoon to catch up on an article for the school paper, and catch a flash of blue and gold as I pass the janitor emptying the day’s leavings into the Dumpster. I wait until he moves back inside and take a look, and sure enough, drag a Cutter High letter jacket out, with COUGHLIN lettered across the back.
Later I drive over to All Night Fitness to see if there is any possibility I can train in that pool. We have a family membership, so I spend time there already, but almost never in the water. Since it’s the only indoor pool in town, All Night rents it out for parties and YMCA swim lessons and women’s and seniors’ water aerobics classes. I hope to swim a few laps to get a feel, but a sign on the entrance says PRIVATE GROUP. I push the swinging door open and stand just inside.
A young man and woman in Y T-shirts stand with lifeguard poles at either side of the pool, and Y staff people are spread out through the crowd like Secret Service at the White House Easter Egg Roll. Political correctness aside, the water and deck are filled with kids who look like they’ll be getting the very best parking places for the rest of their lives. In the far lane Chris Coughlin helps a little girl with shriveled arms on a kickboard. The girl locks her gnarled elbows over the Styrofoam board and kicks while Chris pulls her along. The noise is deafening, but I watch him patiently help her extend her feet, toes pointed inward to propel herself properly, then release the board long enough to let her move under her own power for a few kicks until she becomes still in the water. Then he pulls her a little farther. I am struck with how completely comfortable he seems in the water.
His brother’s jacket is still in my car, and I intend to go get it, but when I yell to get his attention he glances up, then quickly away, and I know my presence embarrasses him, so I just wave. He looks ashamed. How messed up is that? You get treated like shit, then have to be ashamed that you’re the kind of person people treat like shit.
I stay a few minutes, imagining myself trying to get a decent workout in that abbreviated pool. It doesn’t look promising. But as I drive through the quiet dusky streets of the uncharacteristically warm Cutter fall, Chris’s ease in the water flashes before me and suddenly the mathematics-the relativity-of it all hits me. If it kills Barbour to see a guy as far out of the mainstream as Chris is, wearing a letter jacket that doesn’t belong to him, how far up his nose will it get when he sees him wearing one that does belong to him? And suddenly I hear the voice the universe-and Simet-wants me to hear. It says, “Swim.”