Shooting Baskets

By

Terran Boylan

 

Jason Yeager found himself in a singularly unusual position; at the relatively young age of twenty-seven he was, for all practical purposes, retired.

Jason awoke, without the aid of an alarm, at a little past seven oíclock in the morning, the same as he did every day. As soon as his feet hit the floor he was on the clock. It took five minutes to brush his teeth and shave. His shower took another five. It took seven minutes to towel off and blow dry his hair. It took another three minutes to dress and put on his glasses; the late August weather was still warm enough that a T-shirt and shorts were all he needed. After he was dressed he made the bed, happy in the knowledge that when the day was done he wouldnít be climbing into a messy bed.

Jasonís cats, Mr. Misty and Little Bear, were waiting for him when he got downstairs. Mr. Misty was a long-hair brown tabby and Little Bear had short black hair. Jason opened the pantry and scooped a cup and a half of dry cat food into their food dish. Then he rinsed out their water dish and filled it with fresh water. His responsibilities for his cats completed for the day, he poured himself a bowl of bran cereal and picked up Ray Bradburyís Dandelion Wine, his current paperback. After breakfast he put his cereal bowl and spoon in the dishwasher and carried his glass of juice and his book into the living room. Stretching out on the couch he read while Mr. Misty and Little Bear took turns climbing up on his chest to get their morning attention. They entertained themselves by trying to distract him from his reading.

At nine-thirty Jason, basketball under his arm, unlocked his big two-car garage and wheeled out his 10-speed. He strapped on his helmet, stuck his sack lunch and Palm Pilot hand-held computer in a little bike pouch between the handle bars and put his water bottle in its holder. The basketball he bungeed to the back of the bike. He cycled to the end of his block, then took a right onto Washington Avenue, the major artery in the small college town that was Rainbow Creek, Iowa. Riding past "Old Botany," he took a right onto the bike path that would lead him to his destination: Walter H. Williams memorial park.

Jason arrived at the basketball court a little before ten oíclock. He leaned his bike on a sturdy oak and took off his bicycle helmet. He placed his sack lunch into his helmet and tucked them both in the shade. He took the basketball in his hands and stepped onto the court.

Pulling out his digital pocket watch from his shorts pocket, he noted the time: 9:56: a few minutes early. He stretched and looked at the basketball court itself: run-down, cracked, un-cared for. Those were its distinguishing characteristics. Perfect for Jasonís purposes. Because of the dilapidated nature of the court he knew he wouldnít be bothered for the rest of the day.

It was time. Jason clocked in. He stood at the faded and cracked paint of the free-throw line and took his first shot. Swoosh. The ball bounced back to him and he took a second. Swoosh. He continued to shoot and continued to score, missing only occasionally. He kept count of his success rate mentally. As he continued to play he would pause at the end of each hundred-shot count and enter his success rate into his Palm Pilot. A month ago his miss rate was eleven percent. Today he would average seven misses out of every hundred shots. He was certainly making progress. He could picture the graph in his mind.

At one oíclock Jason took a twenty-minute break for lunch. He sat under the oak tree and ate his ham and cheese sandwich and thought about its cost: forty-one cents, including tax. He pulled out a plastic sandwich bag filled with generic barbecue-flavored potato chips. The cost? Twenty-three cents. Total cost for lunch: sixty-four cents. Yes, Jason thought, it did pay to buy in bulk.

At three-twenty Jason clocked out for the day. The time held just a little irony; Three-twenty was the time classes ended when Jason was in high school.

He strapped on his helmet and headed east, toward downtown. Today was Monday and his day to go to "Myriad Maryís," the local used book store.

"Hi, Jack," Mary hailed as he walked in. "What can I do for you this week? Whatís on your list?"

Jack pulled out his Palm Pilot and tapped the screen with his stylus twice. "Iím looking for anything by Jack Finney. What do you have?"

"Yeah, Finney," Mary said as she rounded the corner. She walked with a bit of a limp, but she was still pretty spry considering she was in her mid-seventies. "I was wondering when youíd get around to him. Do you want something from early in his career or something a little more recent?"

"Maybe one of each, I think."

Mary walked toward the back of the store, Jack following. She went to the Science Fiction section and looked up at the second shelf from the top. She looked over the selection and pulled down two books. "Here you go. I think these will get you started nicely."

Jack looked at the covers: The Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Time and Again. Jack held up the first book. "I think I saw this one."

"The black and white version or the one with Mr. Spock?"

"The original, I guess."

"What else are you looking for?"

"I donít know. Iím going to look around through the new arrivals. You get anything good this week?"

"With your taste in books itís mighty hard to tell. Better see for yourself -- you know where they are."

Jack walked over to the "new arrivals" bin and started looking through the books. It was his habit to buy four books every week, three fiction and one non-fiction. In addition to the two books he had, he added battered copies of Stephen Kingís The Shining. He also found a very new copy of a book called Advanced Topology: Numerical Methods and Algorithms.

"So, what did you think of Something Wicked This Way Comes?" Mary asked as Jason walked back to the cash register.

"It wasnít really what I expected. The writing style was kind of weird. I liked it, though. Iím most of the way through Dandelion Wine now."

"Both good summertime reading, donít you think?"

"Oh, yeah. Perfect."

Mary looked through Jasonís selections and rang up his total: four dollars and twenty-four cents. A dollar apiece plus six-percent sales tax. He handed over five one-dollar bills, took his change, thanked her and left.

When Jason got home he locked his bike away in the garage and walked into the house. "Get off the counter!" he mock-growled at Little Bear, who pretended not to know what he meant. Jason carefully lifted her off the kitchen counter and dropped her on the floor (not too hard). Then he bent down and scratched her behind the ears. Jason pulled out a large pot from the refrigerator and put it on the stove, turning it on to a low flame.

Walking into the downstairs guest bedroom, he opened the closet door. Inside the closet a shelf had been built into the closet on the left side. It was the perfectly logical space for hiding a computer and thatís just what Jason had done. He turned on the power for the computer and waited for it to boot up. On startup, the computer had been configured to load and run a utility application automatically.

The utility program was named (and versioned) "LifeBalancer V1.2." Version 1.0 had been written by Jason on a sleepness night ten months before. Jason synched his Palm Pilot to the database, which entered his expenses for the day and his shooting average (ninety-three percent) from his 5 hours on the basketball court into his program. LifeBalancer was, in fact, Jasonís primary tool for maintaining Ė as the name suggested Ė a sense of balance in his life.

His data entry (the names and cost of the books heíd bought) only took a few minutes and then he powered down the computer and went back out to the kitchen. He stirred the pot of beef stew heíd mixed up the night before (total cost: four dollars and twenty-seven cents), put Linda Ronstadtís Whatís New CD (covers of old torchlight songs) in the stereo and poured himself a glass of red wine from a large bottle. He ate dinner listening to music and reading Dandelion Wine.

After dinner, Jason bookmarked his page and stepped through the kitchen door onto his back porch. The sun had set a half-hour before. It was dusk, the end of a day that had been pretty good. From a crumpled pack, he took out and lit his one and only cigarette for the day. Then, as he inhaled and exhaled his first puff, he looked out on his back yard and watched the late summer fireflies as they danced their ancient bioluminescent dance.

***

"I donít need to remind you how important this project is, do I?" Verne McMahon said as he sat behind a desk that was meant to intimidate. Jason thought he should be immune, but he was not.

"No, of course not."

"And I donít need to remind you what will happen to the value of your substantial stock in this company if we miss the quarter."

Jason was offended by this remark. He couldnít believe Verne was holding that over his head. Verne, as a founder, had ten times the stock he did. Jason certainly felt entitled to the stock he held, which added up to about one percent of the company's worth. Hell, he had earned it. It was the technology he developed that had made it possible for the company to go public in the first place.

"Iím doing everything I possibly can to make this project work," Jason said. "Iím sure weíll find a way to succeed. Iím just worried and a little tired is all."

"I think youíre just having trouble dealing with the pressure. Thatís always been your problem. If you could only learn not to worry so much, youíd be so much more productive."

"Itís not a matter of productivity. Iím just as productive as Iíve always been, and you know Iíve never let you down before. Iím just worried that we may have bitten off more than we can chew on this one. Donít you think it would be irresponsible if I kept that from you?"

"Youíre getting all hot and bothered about something that hasnít even happened yet. Iíve approved the requisitions to let you hire all the resources you need. Itís your responsibility to figure out how to use them."

"But new hires arenít going to help at this stage. What we need are people who already know what theyíre doing and I donít have to train."

"What am I supposed to do? Let you loot the company for all the best talent? This isnít the only project in production. It wouldnít be fair to the other projects if I let you just take all their best people, would it?"

"No, I guess not."

"Your problem is youíre too close to the project. Itís my job to look at production as whole and make decisions based on what I see. From where Iím sitting youíre worrying way too much."

Jason knew he wasnít getting anywhere with Verne. Heíd known Verne for eight years. He had to trust that Verne knew what he was talking about. Verne had been right about one thing: Jason didnít perform as well under pressure as he did in a more relaxed atmosphere. But somehow he had always managed to get the job done.

Maybe the problem was his new management responsibilities. Jason had always been what was considered "hands on," but lately he found himself spending more time taking seminars on leadership and sitting in meetings than doing anything he considered "real work." The prestige and increase in salary that had gone along with his promotion were nice, but maybe it had been a mistake to take it. He knew he wasnít ever going to be the leader Verne was. As a manager of people, (who he refused to call "resources.") he sometimes felt like he was out of his element.

But beyond all this, he felt a nagging fear his technical skills were starting to slip behind the cutting edge. It was so hard to keep up with what was new and current. It had been different back when he was in school. Then heíd had the luxury of time, time to devote to learning and experimenting. Heíd been lauded for the work he had done in those precarious first three years of the companyís history, but now he was beginning to feel like a bit of a dinosaur. Was be becoming obsolete?

***

It was nine-thirty on a Tuesday night. For the most part the only people in OíDooleís Tavern were the regulars. Although the bar featured live music on the weekends, it was a good quiet place during the week. A good place to meet and talk.

"Jason! Over here!" Dennis waved Jason over to the booth. Dennis had apparently come directly from work; he was still dressed in his suit and tie.

"Itís good to see you again, man!" Dennis said, grabbing Jasonís hand. Jason sat down and a waitress walked over. He ordered a pint of light beer and a basket of potato chips. Dennis ordered a whiskey sour.

Dennis eyed Jason expectantly. "So, whatíve you been doing?" he asked.

Jason settled into the booth. "Nothing really special. Itís more or less the same as the last time I saw you."

"When was that?" Dennis asked. "Back in April or May?"

"April I think."

The waitress brought over their drinks.

As Jason reached for his wallet, Dennis waved him off with his hand. "Here, let me get this," he said.

"Thanks, I appreciate it." Jason took a sip of his beer. He smiled at the waitress as she turned to leave.

"Well, you shouldnít be such a recluse," Dennis continued. "We go back a long way, man. We ought to try to get together for lunch or something."

"I donít know," Jason said hesitantly. "Iíve got myself on kind of a schedule. I really hate to mess it up."

"Yeah, I guess not. Anyhow, you really should get out more, you know?"

Jason felt that he got out plenty, and in ways that were more meaningful than Ďdoing lunch.í "I donít know," he said. "I think Iím doing okay. What did you want to talk to me about?"

Dennis took a sip of his drink. "Well, mostly I wanted to see you and see how you were doing."

"AndÖ", Jason said. He was suspicious. With Dennis he had good reason.

"AndÖ well, maybe see if you had the time in your busy schedule to do a little consulting work. Not too much, maybe twenty hours a week or so."

Jason smiled. "Uh, Dennis, Iím really not interested in doing that. I thought Iíd explained all that to you."

"I know, I know," Dennis said. "Itís not like the old days."

"No, itís not," Jason said. His expression suddenly became more serious.

Dennis kept pressing, not registering the change in Jasonís demeanor. "But I thought you might be interested. I mean weíve got other consultants I can use, but I thought Iíd give you first crack at it, you know?"

"Yeah, I truly appreciate it. Thanks."

Again, Dennis missed the subtle sarcasm in Jasonís tone. "Are you positive youíre not interested? Because if youíre not I can completely understand that and respect it."

"Believe me, Iím certain," Jason said. He took another sip of his beer. He hoped Dennis would drop the subject before he found himself saying anything he regretted.

Dennis nodded his head and said, "Okay, okay." He looked back toward the bar. Seeing their waitress he waved her over and ordered another drink. When the waitress left the booth, he suddenly snapped his fingers and his face brightened a little. "Oh, there was another thing I wanted to tell you," he said.

"Whatís that?" Jason asked, worried that it involved another business opportunity.

"Leslie and Jim are having a party at their place Friday night. When I mentioned to her I was meeting you for drinks she asked me to invite you along."

Jason looked hesitantly. "Gee, I donít knowÖ"

"Come on. It would be good for you to get out for a change. And besides, everybody would love to see you and see how youíre doing."

"Yeah, Iím sure they would," Jason said. He seriously wondered whether theyíd want to see him ever again. The idea of going to a party the party at Leslieís, and seeing her and everybody again, made Jason nervous.

"No, they really love to see you," Dennis continued. "Everybodyís been wondering what youíve been up to. You really ought to go."

"You think I should, huh?"

"Sure, why not?" Dennis said.

"Iíll tell you what -- Iíll think about it," Jason half-promised as he drank his last swallow of beer.

***

"Iím sorry, Jason. Itís just not working and I think we should just admit that to ourselves."

Tina sat on the other side of the small conference room table. It was such a stupid place to end a relationship, but sheíd insisted on talking to him that night. She was serious about splitting up. Jason knew this. He didnít want to let her go, but understand very well why she wanted to leave. And he knew he didnít have the energy to try to get her to stay.

"Iím sorry too," was all he could manage to say.

"I know youíve got this huge project right now, but I donít see that itís ever going to change," she said. "After this project is over thereís just going to be another one. Itís just going to go on and on and Iím always going to feel like Iím running a distant second to your job."

"So this is it?" he asked, already knowing the answer.

"Iíll move my things out this weekend."

"You donít have to do that. Where are you going to live?"

"Iím going to live at Nancyís house for awhile, then Iíll find a place of my own."

There was no point in offering to help with the move. He knew he had to work over the weekend anyway. They both knew this. Jason knew he would miss Tina. Theyíd been together for over a year. It wasnít the first time heíd broken up with a woman and he knew it probably wouldnít be the last. At least he would no longer have to worry about neglecting her.

***

Wednesday morning Jason woke up and started his morning routine. He left the house fifteen minutes early and on the way to the basketball court he took a short detour. He rode south until he hit the old airport road, then headed east.

The three-story structure stood apart from the other buildings in the office park. Its gray exterior seemed cold and heartless. They had laughingly called it "The Monolith" and Jason had worked within its walls for seven and a half years. This had been the first time in months Jason had been by the building. The parking lot was full of cars and Jason thought about Dennis and Leslie all the other people hard at work inside. Going about their business. Sitting in meetings. Dealing with all the minor emergencies. The steel and concrete and glass building held a lot of memories and surprisingly strong emotions. Anger and bitterness and resentment andÖ

Jason looked at the building from the safety of the road. He didnít want to get any closer.

***

What was he dreaming about? Lost now. Was he safe in his dream? He wished he could remember. There was a crying, a high-pitched bansheeís wail.

The whining of the cleaning crewís vacuum woke Jason from his fitful sleep. He didnít remember nodding off. He put on his glasses and looked at the clock: 5:07am. It was cold on the floor of his office at this hour of the morning. He folded up his sleeping bag and piled it in the corner, half-hidden beside his bookcase. He no longer bothered to take it home any more.

Jason had been working for almost five months straight. The only day heíd taken off was two months before when heíd had a case of stomach flu, which made it physically impossible to leave his house. For the last month heíd been averaging over a hundred hours a week. He knew he couldnít last much longer at this pace. The deadline Ė a moving target -- had shifted incrementally forward so many times that he no longer believed there would ever be an end. The clientís mood was best reflected by rumors heíd heard of possible legal action if the project were not completed satisfactorily. There seemed to be so many problems, but one of the primary ones was a client that kept changing their minds, asking for new features and major structural changes. In light of his companyís own fuck-ups, it was best to do what they asked in an effort to placate them.

Jason was the sole remaining member of the original twenty-person team. Three of the companyís best programmers had pursued "other opportunities." The others had cycled onto other, less doomed projects. But Jason had stayed. In addition to his supervisory responsibilities, which took up the whole of the normal working day, Jason had taken on more and more of the coding duties as well. It was impossible to do this during the day and so he worked on it in his office late into the night, trying to accomplish as much as he humanly could.

His body was falling apart. He kept himself going somehow, but he wasnít sure how, or occasionally why. He was physically and emotionally exhausted, one of the walking wounded. Mostly he just felt numb. He was constantly in fear of more bad news, of which there seemed an inexhaustible supply. He had absolutely no sense of humor anymore. He worried that the rest of his team was treating him more and more as a man holding a whip. They were all working long hours too, but Jason signed their time sheets and knew he was working more than everybody else.

One interesting side effect of the stress: he was starting to have panic attacks. There didnít seem to be any rhyme or reason to them. The previous week heíd been in a meeting with one of the directors. The director was telling some story that was supposed to be motivational, but instead was just stupid. Jasonís thoughts had drifted and he wondered if the key to getting a job as a director or vice president was not competence or knowledge of the product, but instead the ability to speak in metaphors. He started to feel a small smile creeping onto his face.

Then, without warning, his heart started beating faster and he was quickly enveloped with a feeling of danger, a feeling he had to get out of the office before he suffocated. He paled visibly. The director asked him if he was all right. Jason made a weak excuse and said he was fine.

But the worst thing of all -- the very worst -- was that Jason had been contemplating suicide. The blackest of dark thoughts had started as an occasional mental whisper, but had grown steadily in volume and frequency. There were nights when Jason felt so alone and was so acutely aware of the enormity of his personal failure that he was hard pressed to find any kind of reason not to kill himself. Everything just felt so hopeless. It was a damn good thing he didnít own a gun, although he knew it wouldnít be hard to get one.

Jason shook his head. He was lost in thought again, dammit. He took his toothbrush out of his desk drawer and went to the menís room. He splashed cold water on his face and wiped it dry with a handful of paper towels.

Returning to his office, he yawned and shook his head and tried to remember what heíd been working on before he fell asleep. There was a set of special-purpose device drivers that needed to be written for a variety of input devices. The work didnít take too much mental energy, which was a good thing. Suddenly the phone rang.

Jason looked at the clock: 5:35am. Who could be calling? He picked up the receiver.

"Jason, itís Harriet. I tried your house but didnít get any answer. What are you doing at work at this hour?"

It was his sister. What was wrong? "Iím just doing some programming," Jason answered. "I like to come in early in the morning before anybody gets here. I can get a lot done that way," Jason lied.

"Um, listenÖ the reason Iím callingÖ. Itís dad. Heís in the hospital."

Oh God, not now, Jason thought. Then to his sister, "What happened?"

"About three hours ago he woke up with chest pains. He called 911 and passed out. The paramedics had to break in through the kitchen door. The doctor here says he had a myocardial infarction Ė a heart attack."

Jason took this information in. He was having a hard time processing it. It didnít seem real, somehow.

"Jason, are you there?" his sisterís voice asked.

"Yeah, sorry. How are you doing? Where are you?"

"Iím at the hospital. Philís home with the kids. Iím going to stay here for awhile. Dadís in surgery right now. I want to be here when he gets out."

"Is there anything I can do?" Jason felt obligated to ask.

"Do you think you could come down?" Harriet asked carefully.

Jason was afraid of this. He felt trapped. St. Louis was an eight-hour drive away. By plane it would still take two or three hours. He knew if he took even a few days off that nothing would get done in his absence. Things would get even worse. He couldnít risk it.

"Iím sorry, Harriet," Jason said, "This is really bad time right now. Iíve got this deadline and leaving isnít an option. I just canít come down there, not right now."

"I understand. Really I do. Iím sorry you canít get away," Harriet said.

"Listen. You take care of yourself. Donít worry too much. Iím sure Dadís going to pull through this just fine. People recover from heart attacks every day."

"Yeah."

"Give me a call when he gets out of surgery. Let me know what the doctor says, okay?"

"Okay."

***

Three-twenty. Quitting time. Jason entered his seven percent miss rate into his Palm Pilot. Then he cycled over to the video store. On Tuesdays and Wednesdays Mikeís Video Spot rented old movies two for a dollar, and Jason liked to take advantage of the bargain. He rented four videos which wouldnít be due until Saturday at noon. Mostly he found himself watching the classics. One evening heíd written a program that compiled a database of "really good" videos. Jason was slowly working his way down the list.

At home he put on the stew pot and synched his data with LifeBalancer. He poured a glass of wine and scooped up a bowl of stew. Shooing Mr. Misty off the couch, he sat down to watch a young Jack Lemmon and an even younger Shirley MacClaine in Billy Wilderís The Apartment.

It was after ten oíclock when Jason got to Leslie and Jimís house. From the sounds inside, the party was apparently well under way. Before Jason could ring the front doorbell, Leslie opened the door.

"Oh my God!" she exclaimed, "Dennis told me you might come, but I didnít believe him. Come on in!"

"Thanks," Jason said as he stepped in the front door. "Itís really good to see you again. Here, I brought this." Jason handed Leslie a bottle of Merlot. "Dennis didnít tell me if I should bring anything or not."

"Oh, thank you, sweetie!" She gave him a hug. "Hey, everybody! Look whoís here!"

Several familiar faces greeted him. As he shook hands and exchanged hugs, he was taken aback by how genuinely happy most of the people seemed to be to see him. Several people wanted to know how he was and what heíd been doing since leaving the company. A few people were surprised to learn that he was still living in town.

After the novelty of his surprise appearance died down, Jason found himself sitting in the living room listening to a conversation between two of the managers, Ted and Jerry, about recent market trends in the on-line technology industry. After awhile Ted asked Jason what he thought.

"Oh, I donít know," Jason replied. "I really donít follow that kind of stuff much anymore."

"Yeah, I suppose you donít need to. So, JasonÖ"

"Yes?"

"I was wondering. How is your retirement treating you?"

The word surprised him. "Retirement? Is that what people are calling it?"

Ted smiled. "Well, you know what I mean."

Jason took a sip of his wine. "I guess itís okay. Nothing really exciting to report I suppose."

"Really? No big secret projects in the works?"

"No, nothing like that. Excuse me, I think Iím going to go get some more wine."

"Sure, buddy."

Jason wound his way through the rooms of the house back toward the kitchen. He stopped in the entryway and overheard a woman say, "Six straight months of guitar lessons and then he drops them. What was that all about?"

Jason stopped. They were talking about him. It made him uncomfortable but a little curious.

"Iím sure he had a good reason," he heard Leslie say.

"Itís just a little strange is all. I mean, God knows he can afford to do anything he wants, right? But itís just kind of odd. Donít you think heís acting a little weird tonight? He doesnít seem like his old self at all."

"Well, maybe heís not the same person he was," Leslie said, a little protective anger creeping into his voice. "And thank God for that. You donít know what it was like there at the end. You didnít see the kind of pressure he was under. I did. I donít blame him one bit for leaving. I really donít."

So Leslie was defending him. Jason decided it was time to stop eavesdropping. He set his glass down on a nearby bookcase and left by way of the back door.

Stepping onto the porch he saw he wasnít alone. A short woman, a brunette, was standing in the shadows, smoking a cigarette.

"Hi," she said. "You must be Jason."

"Uh huh," he replied.

She stepped over closer to him. "You smoke?" she asked.

"Sure," he said. She pulled out a Newport and offered it to him, along with a lighter.

Jason lit the cigarette (his second of the day) and took a drag. "Thanks," he said. "My reputation precedes me, huh?"

She nodded with a smile. "By the way," she said, "my nameís Kathy. Iím an old friend of Leslieís."

"Nice to meet you, Kathy." Jason shook her small hand gently.

"From what people have been saying, I get the impression youíre quite an interesting guy."

"I donít think Iím all that interesting," Jason replied, a little embarrassed.

"Actually, people seem to have all kinds of different ideas about you. I have to admit I find it somewhat intriguing."

Jason pointed to the house. "Is everybody in there talking about me?" he asked.

"Just about."

Jason leaned forward against the porch railing. And looked up at the sky. "Thatís terrific," he said. "Iím glad my appearance here tonight has provided so much entertainment."

"The really donít know what theyíre talking about, do they?" Kathy asked carefully.

"No," Jason replied, "They donít."

Jason finished the last of the beef stew and put his dishes in the dishwasher. It was after seven oíclock in the evening and the rates were low. He picked up the telephone and dialed. His sister answered the phone. They talked for a little while about her husband Phil and their kids. Jasonís nephew Gerry had just won first place in the second-grade art fair.

"You really ought to come down for a visit," Harriet said. "Maybe come down for a week or two. Enjoy the pool, you know?"

"Yeah, that would be nice," Jason said.

"So, is there anything going on in your life?" his sister asked.

"Well, I went to a party last night and met a woman. Her nameís Kathy Gibbs and sheís a friend of Leslieís."

"Ooh, this sounds interesting. Are you going to go out with her?"

"As a matter of fact, we are. Tomorrow night."

"Did you ask her or did she ask you?"

"She asked me."

"Sounds like you."

"Yeah, I guess. Itís just that I donít know if I really want a relationship right now. Iím pretty happy with things as they are."

"Itís not a relationship, Jason. Itís just a date. But who knows? I think a girlfriend would probably do you good, depending on the woman."

Jason took this comment to be a reference to Tina. "Itís just that itís hard to explain things. You know, how things are with me. The party was weird."

"In what way?"

"Most people canít seem to accept what Iím doing. Hell, a lot of the time I donít understand it myself. I know itís uncommon, but they treated me like I was some kind of escaped mental patient."

"Jason," Harriet said, "I have a question to ask you. Are you happy?"

"Yes," Jason said.

"Thatís all thatís important."

"Lately I find I have this sense of peace, which is really wonderful. But I donít think most people can identify with it."

"Most people, most people. The right people will understand and will get it. I sure as hell get it. Iím just thankful my little brother is alive and happy and healthy."

"Thanks, Harriet. I appreciate it," Jason said. "Listen, Iím thinking about the offer to come down there. Do you know if thereís a park or something with a basketball court?"

"Thatís a funny question, but yes, thereís one a few blocks from here."

***

Messy and public. Those three words kept going through his mind. Had he really broken down and cried in front of his team? Then later again in Verneís office? He was pretty sure he had. What was it that Verne had said that somehow triggered the outburst? Something along the lines of "Pull yourself together -- just think about the effect youíre having on the people who report to you." It was obvious he sure as hell wasnít doing anybody any good by staying. He knew he had reached his breaking point, and then some.

As he thought back to what could only be described as "his emotional breakdown" that had transpired only an hour before, he had an odd feeling. It was a mix of stupor and disbelief, the way a champion fighter must feel after heís unexpectedly met his match. As much as Jason tried, he just wasnít able get the project to work. He knew he had failed. Heíd never failed before.

In the final analysis it had come down to a question of leaving in disgrace or killing himself. Heíd come to that realization sitting in his car at three in the morning holding a gun in his hand. He didnít want to die. It wouldnít do anybody any good, but it was one way out. But it wasnít the only way out. Why was he doing this to himself? He didnít need to. The stock he held, if sold and responsibly reinvested, would last a long, long time, wouldnít it? Finding himself in the middle of an emotional free fall, his survival instinct had kicked. There was a moment of clarity as he realized he could just pull that rip-cord and parachute to safety. He didnít want to, but just knowing he could helped someway. When faced with absolute failure he saw that he could opt for failure.

Could he accept that? Could he live with himself as a failure? He knew once he stepped through that curtain and admitted he was weak he could never go back. He felt great shame for giving up, but knew heíd had no other choice. Somewhere in the back of his mind he heard a little voice say, "It could have been worse. Somehow it could have been worse." This was true. People fail every day. Now he was one of them.

***

Jason picked Kathy up at her apartment a little before eight oíclock. It had been the first time heíd driven his car in three weeks. Sometimes he entertained thoughts about cutting back on expenses even further by selling the car, but figured it was good to have it when he needed it.

Jason took Kathy to a nice restaurant downtown and they had a pleasant dinner. Kathy had a nice sense of humor. It turned out that she and Leslie were roommates in college and had kept in contact ever since. After living and working in Chicago for five years sheíd moved back to Rainbow Creek to take a job at the university as a senior administrative aid to the provost.

After dinner they went back to Jasonís house to continue their conversation and share a bottle of wine. Following a short tour of the house Ė Kathy thought the computer in the closet was a little weird but a great idea Ė they settled down on the couch to talk. Kathy was especially curious about what happened after Jason left the company.

"The first month it seemed like all I did was catch up on my sleep," Jason said.

"From what Leslie told me, it sounds like you were overdue," Kathy interjected.

"After about a month I started to go a little stir crazy. All I did was sleep and eat and read. I found myself becoming kind of depressed. Sometimes I would wonder if I was doing the right thing or not. On the one hand I was committing career suicide. On the other hand I had enough money so I wouldnít have to worry about work."

Kathy smiled. "Jason, donít take this the wrong way, but just how much money do you have?"

Jason took a sip of wine. Talking about the specifics of his financial situation made him uncomfortable. "Letís just say that I have enough to live off of for the rest of my life, but I have to be careful."

"What do you mean by careful?" Kathy asked.

"After IÖ made the decision to stop workingÖ I sat down one night and built this mathematical model, projecting it out over my lifetime."

"OkayÖ"

"I determined that if I lived under certain budgetary constraints and watched my expenses I could make it work. Itís just a matter of discipline and making a commitment to sticking to my budget over the remainder of my life. Based on my projections, the next fifteen years are critical. For every dollar I spend now it means about forty to fifty dollars I wonít have when Iím seventy."

Kathy laughed. "In that case I really should thank you again for buying me dinner, shouldnít I? But seriously, isnít it hard, living like that?"

"For a lot of people I think it might be. I came to the realization that -- for me, anyway -- happiness isnít something you buy. It doesnít come from having expensive possessions. Once I saw that buying stuff and spending money was just a big trap, and that what was the most valuable thing to me was really my peace of mind, well thenÖ"

"I guess going on safaris and traveling around the world is out, then?"

"Yeah. The same goes for buying new cars or big screen TVs or expensive suits."

"So what, you shop at Goodwill?"

"For some things, yeah."

Kathy thought about this. "You know," she said, "in all honestly I was wondering if you were some kind of a kook."

"Thatís nice."

"No, really. I was wondering if when we came over here if you were going to be some kind of crazy eccentric."

"And now what do you think?"

Kathy smiled. "I donít think youíre the best housekeeper in the world, but I donít think youíre crazy."

"Thanks, I think."

Kathy continued. "ButÖ I donít really understand how much longer you can really live like this. I wonder if itís realistic to stick to the kind ofÖ monetary abstinenceÖ that youíve set up for yourself."

"I see."

"I think for the most part youíre pretty normal, but I canít help but wonder if this isnít just a temporary reaction to burnout. Five years from now are you still going to be doing this? I donít know. Maybe itís just a phase youíre going through. I would think that after awhile it would get boring and youíll naturally gravitate back into doing something moreÖ professionally meaningful."

Jason was surprised by her candor. The honesty was refreshing and she wasnít saying anything he hadnít thought about already. "I can see how you might wonder about that," he said.

"I mean, I would be lost without my career. Rightly or wrongly, I get a lot of my sense of identity from my work."

"A lot of people do. But does that make it right?"

"I donít know. All I can do is tell it the way I see it. Tell to me more about this basketball thing. I donít think I get that."

"I know it seems kind of strange, but itís not at all. Itís perfectly logical."

"Okay, so try to explain it to me. Use simple language so Iíll understand. Was there a Ďmathematical modelí involved?"

Jason laughed. "No, there wasnít, actually. Itís very simple. The key is self-discipline. What Iím doing is teaching myself to focus on one thing at a time. And the essence of my plan is to devote myself to a single endeavor for six months at a stretch. It used to be there were a hundred different things I always wanted to do but never had the time. This way Iím not trying to do a whole lot of different things and not doing any of them really well."

"So the guitar lessons was your first trial run."

"Yeah, and it worked pretty well. Iíd always wanted to play the guitar, and back in high school I managed to teach myself a few chords. But I never really applied myself. It was like everybody I met who could really play had gone through some kind of period in their life when thatís just about all they did."

"So now you can play the guitar pretty well, then?"

"Uh-huh. I took one-hour lessons down at the guitar shop on Main street and then I would come back here and play for four hours."

"Every day."

"Monday through Friday. It became my job. It was hard to keep going for the first couple of weeks until the calluses developed on my fingertips, but after about three months I could see my system was working. All I had to do was focus on one thing. It was great."

"So, how much longer do you have with the basketball thing? When are the six months up?"

"September thirty-first will be my last day."

"And then what?"

"Well, the plan in general is to alternate between indoor, more intellectual pursuits during the winter months, and outdoor, more physical activities when the weather is nicer. So the next item on the list is watercolor painting. Iíll start on Monday, October third. Then Iíll be taking classes at the community center starting on the seventeenth."

"And whatís on the program after that?"

"Running."

"That sounds nice and healthy. And after that?"

"WritingÖ Short fiction."

"And after that?"

"Baseball."

"And after that?"

"Art history."

"And after that?"

"Tennis."

"And after that?"

The sky was clear on the drive down to Saint Louis. Mr. Misty was curled up on the passengerís seat and Little Bear slept in the back window. Jason could have found someone to take care of them for two weeks, but he felt better having them with him. They were good travelers; after meowing for the first fifteen or twenty minutes, theyíd settled in for the trip.

Past Des Moines, the interstate traffic wasnít too heavy. Jason listened to a few CDs heíd brought along and after awhile decided to give the radio a try. He found a nice jazz station just before the Missouri border and followed the sound for as long as he could, finally losing John Coltrane to static about fifty miles from his destination.

It was early evening when Jason pulled up in front of his sisterís house. He stepped out of the car and his nephew Gerry came running out to see him. Jason picked him up and gave him a big hug. It had been six months since the last time heíd seen him. Harriet threw her arms around her brother as they walked in the door. She showed Jason to his room and then he went out to the car and brought in his luggage and the cats. Little Bear hid in the closet of Jasonís room, but Mr. Misty, the more adventurous of the two, went off to investigate the big house.

Gerry had a new game for his Nintendo system, and rejoiced in demonstrating it to Jason. Jenny, Harrietís four-year-old sister was shy with Jason at first, but warmed to him after awhile. Her way of demonstrating approval was to introduce Jason to all of her dolls, which she marched out one at a time. Jason sat on the floor of the rec room and played with the video game and met Jennyís dolls until Phil came home.

Working on Saturdays was just something Phil did, and he seemed to accept it as an immutable fact of life. He and Jason didnít see eye to eye on a lot of things and Jason doubted they ever would.

Over dinner Phil once again told Jason he "didnít understand how somebody could throw so much potential down the toilet." Harriet cringed but didnít come to her brotherís rescue, which Jason really appreciated. They just exchanged a private look over the spaghetti and salad.

Later, after reading Gerry and Jenny to sleep, Jason kissed them both on their little foreheads and went downstairs to his room. He changed into his swim suit and grabbed a towel. Walking through the living room, he told Harriet and Phil that he was going to go for a swim. Philís attention never left the baseball game he was watching and Harriet said she might come out after awhile.

It was a cloudless night and the stars shone like freshly-polished diamonds in the sky. After finding the switch for the pool light and turning it on, Jason took off his glasses and put them on a small table next to one of the pool chairs. He stepped carefully into the pool, but found it was still warm from the solar radiation of the day, even though the night air was cooling off.

He went into the water up to his neck, then ducked his head under to get his hair wet. He swam for half an hour until his arms and legs couldnít take any more. Then he just floated on his back, looking up at the sky. There was a sensual quality to the way he felt. So whole. His aching arms. The feeling of being immersed in warm liquid. The delicate dancing patterns of the reflected blue light from the pool. The crescent moon shining up in the sky. It all felt so nice and peaceful and alive.

***

So this is what a deathbed looks like, Jason thought.

It was five oíclock in the morning when he reached the hospital. Heíd driven all night. Harriet was asleep in the waiting room. Jason stood by the deathbed, looking at his dying father. Deathbed. The word became fixed in his mind. Is it even a real word? It doesnít seem like one, he thought.

His father had been a good man, a hard-working businessman, the president of his own cleaning supply company at thirty-five. It was he who taught Jason the importance of hard work and how it was the only thing that really mattered. Had his father worked himself to death? Probably. Itís such an easy thing to do, Jason thought, standing there beside the deathbed. Thereís no shortage of different ways to kill yourself.

Jason thought about what heíd done that day and how his father would never have understood his decision to leave the company. His father had puffed up his chest with pride each and every time Jason got promoted. It was his fatherís measurement of success. Now it was all gone. And his father was dying. If only heíd had his "messy and public" breakdown a few days earlier.

But it was too late now. He had gotten there too late. His father would probably never see him. They say that in the moments before death those who lay dying enjoy a moment of clarity and his father would know his son was near, but Jason found it hard to believe. He looked at his fatherís legs, which would never more go walking. They would go walking no more. It was a stupid thing to think.

By 8 oíclock that night his father was dead. He never regained consciousness or knew his son was there, waiting beside the deathbed.

Jasonís father was buried on a Thursday in his best business suit.

***

"What are you doing out here, Jason? Anything you shouldnít be?" Harrietís voice found him as she walked over to the pool.

Jason splashed as he turned in the direction of her voice. "Nothing much, just taking it easy. Come on in, the waterís still warm."

"Thatís okay, I got some swimming in this afternoon."

Jason swam over to the side of the pool and boosted himself out. He walked over to his sister, whoíd taken a seat in one of the pool chairs. He dried his hair and body off with the towel, then pulled on his T-shirt. Harriet had brought out two cans of beer. She handed one to him.

"What are you thinking about?" she asked, opening her beer.

"Dad. I was remembering coming to see him right before he died." Jason sat down in the chair next to his sister. The combination of the cool night air and his wet body sent a shiver through him.

"Want me to get a robe?" she asked.

Jason shook his head. "No. Iíll dry off soon enough, then itíll be okay." He took another swallow of beer. He usually stuck to wine, but the beer tasted good, and somehow more appropriate.

"I think about dad a lot too," Harriet said. "We should just be thankful for the time we got to spend with him."

"But I wasted so many opportunities."

"We all did. So did he. Thatís a part of life. But we canít go beating ourselves up over it." She made a face like an old man and said, "Thatís called guilt and itís strictly for losers." It was a bad imitation of their father and made her brother laugh.

Harriet smiled, then said, "You know, Phil doesnít understand you at all. Itís kind of funny, actually. I think he just canít imagine what itís like to be in your shoes. Itís a problem he has. He can never see anything from another personís point of view. He just thinks about what heíd do in your situation and what youíre doing just makes no sense to him."

"I guess thatís too bad," Jason said.

"Remembering what I was saying about people understanding? Phil is a good man and a good father, but it doesnít matter one damn if he ever understands you."

"It would be nice if my brother-in-law approved of me," Jason said, "But I guess I can live without it. The problem is, itís not just Phil. It seems like lately Iíve had to deal with so many people who donít get it. I feel like Iím starting to develop some kind of a complex."

"Itís not like you to care about what anybody else thinks," his sister said.

"I donít. Itís just that everybody seems to think Iím some kind of damaged goods or Iíve got some kind of weird syndrome or something. Iím not that interesting. Iím not that complicated."

His sister looked at him.

"Life doesnít have to be complicated," Jason said. "I think itís just that for some reason people tend to make their lives unnecessarily hard."

"Maybe they do it so they wonít get bored." Harriet offered.

"Yeah, maybe. But thatís a pretty stupid reason. Itís like they buy into this stupid game and they play it and even if they win theyíre still losing. But itís all about this superficial crap like going to see the latest movie or buying the latest trendy clothes. Then they spend their whole lives chasing after all this meaningless stuff and they lose sight of whatís really important. Thatís what Iím fighting. Iíve decided not to play the game and it makes me feel like some kind of a freak."

"I know," Harriet said. "You donít have to convince me. I get it. I truly do. It sounds more like youíre trying to convince yourself than me."

"Well, maybe I need to keep doing that if Iím going to make it all work."

Harriet reached over and took his hand and gave it a squeeze. "Then keep doing it."

Jason put on his glasses and looked up at the stars. His sister looked up too. After awhile she spoke. "So you never told me. How was your date?"

"It was okay," Jason said. "Not great, but okay."

"Are you going to see her again?" Harriet asked.

"Probably. She seems nice enough. Itís funny, but I just realized a lot is riding on whether or not she can genuinely appreciate what Iím doing."

"So what you want is a woman who really understands you,huh? I remember when you were in high school and all you wanted was a girlfriend with big tits." Harriet laughed.

"Was I really that shallow?" Jason asked.

"No, silly, Iím only teasing. But letís get back to this woman. Do you think sheís got the potential for this profound understanding?"

Jason shook his head. "The juryís still out on that one. I donít think she herself knows whether or not Iím some kind of nut."

"Well, just be sure to give her a chance. Donít scare her off, okay? You know, if you want to call her from here thatís fine."

"I know," Jason said.

On Monday morning, Jason got up bright and early. It was seven oíclock, but he knew his brother-in-law would already be at work. It turned out the only other person in the household awake that early was his nephew, who he discovered in the kitchen trying to feed part of a pop-tart to Little Bear. Jason fixed himself a bowl of cereal and sat down with Gerry and watched Pokemon on the big screen TV in the rec room.

"Say, Gerry," Jason said, "Your mom tells me thereís a park near here with a basketball court, is that right?" Harriet had given him directions the night before, but he thought it would be nice to have his nephewís company.

"Sure I do," Gerry said. "Do you want me to show you where it is?"

After the TV show ended, they went back to the kitchen and fixed a matching pair of sack lunches and filled two plastic cola bottles with water. Gerry insisted on packing strawberry fruit roll-ups for them both. By the time they finished, Jenny had gotten Harriet up and Jason explained what they were going to do. "Iíll bring him home if he gets bored," Jason assured his sister.

"Donít you dare. Itíll do him good to spend the whole day with you. Iím sure youíll figure out some way to make watching you shoot baskets interesting for him."

Outside in the driveway, Jason opened the trunk of his car and got out his worn basketball. Taking his nephewís hand whenever they crossed streets, they walked together to the neighborhood park. It was a beautiful, warm, late August day. The summers lasted a little longer down south than they did back in Iowa.

When they got to the park, Gerry grabbed the ball and ran out ahead to lead his uncle to the court. Jason was happy to see it had a reasonable amount of shade cover and there was a swing-set close enough for Gerry to play on when he got bored. Standing on the free-throw line, the ball in his hands, Jason looked down at the freshly-painted court markings. Then he saw a crack in the concrete with a yellow dandelion growing out of it. A little outcropping of personality. The court wasnít as run-down as the one back home, but Jason thought it would do just fine.

-End-