Ilan Mochari: (I Dedicate My Life) to Marcus Mercurio, Wherever He May Be (Fiction)
The assembled adults conversed about snowfall projections and the upcoming February vacation. Donnie’s eyelids kept dropping. One hour removed from a cocktail of Gatorade and Red Bull, he was nonetheless dozing in a situation even he knew was important.
“Donnie, are you okay handling this meeting without your mother?” asked the principal, Karl Lawrence. “We haven’t heard from her, but we don’t have much time.” The principal, in his three-piece suit, spoke first with his hands clasped behind his back. Then he squeezed Donnie’s left shoulder, which was still throbbing from a recent collision in practice.
“Are you going to kick me off the team?” asked Donnie. He had dedicated his senior season to Marcus, inking “MM” inside the basketball tattoo on his left bicep, just below where Lawrence had squeezed. Marcus had been a star on the junior varsity.
Pamela Leggett, the assistant principal, coughed into her elbow. “Coach Lind has nothing but praise for you,” she said. Her son, Anderson, started ahead of Donnie on the varsity.
Lawrence grinned at Leggett. He continued: “The problem – and you must know this, Donnie – is that you have constantly cut classes since Marcus passed away. We are all very sorry for your loss. We can’t say that enough. Let me again tell you our school has a generous bereavement policy. You could take a semester or two off, come back refreshed and ready to study. But this pattern cannot continue. I understand you don’t want to miss basketball season. I understand some college coaches have an interest in you. But in the space of six weeks, you have gone from a C+ student to someone who might not pass his senior year and, therefore, might not graduate. We want you to keep playing. We know it’s good for you. But I’m here to tell you – and I’ll e-mail this to your mother – we will suspend you if you cut one more class.”
In the locker room, Donnie changed into high-top sneakers, mesh shorts, a blue-green reversible practice jersey, and a bright red headband. The process seemed to take hours. He felt an urge to nap on the floor of filthy tiles. But resting – no, that wasn’t how scholarships were won. Donnie exhaled hard, and jogged out to the court. He wanted to shoot one hundred free throws before Coach Lind or his teammates showed up. His shoulder ached but he hoped he could find a pain-free motion.
Donnie missed his first three shots. Each time, the ball caromed off the back of the rim. He winced as he held the ball aloft for his fourth shot. His legs felt weak. He knelt on the court, hoping the spell would pass; then he lay down, using his hands as a pillow. The ball rolled slowly away. Minutes later Lind knelt beside him, taking his pulse.
“I’m no doctor,” said the school nurse, “but I believe you have a case of orthostatic hypotension. Tall people sometimes get it when they’re dehydrated or exhausted. You stand when your body needs to sit and your blood pressure drops – which makes you drop too,” she said.
Donnie nodded. “Did you call my mom?” he asked.
“I reached her voicemail,” said the nurse.
“I better get comfortable,” said Donnie. He was happy the nurse didn’t know about his shoulder.
When thirty minutes passed with no callback from Martha Mercurio, the nurse offered Donnie a ride home. Her eyes widened when he told her where he lived.
It was at the western cusp of the school district, the border of Southbrook and New York City. It was past the train tracks, where the houses of kids like Anderson Leggett gave way to the redbrick apartments of kids like Donnie Mercurio. Colonials shed their shingled, shuttered skin and grew the stubble of steel bars and fire escapes. Stop signs flew upward, attached themselves to wires, and bloomed heads of lighted green, yellow and red. Donnie observed the nurse’s driving habits. He noticed how she hurried through the yellows and braked abruptly at the reds. And she stared straight ahead, right through the windshield, when they came to his apartment building and it was time for them to say goodbye.
Donnie walked toward the lobby doors, in whose reflection he saw the nurse’s black Taurus rolling away. When she was gone, he turned around and began the cold walk to the train tracks. He was due for work at 6pm. He considered resting at home – who knew how serious this hypotension was? – but home meant a conversation with his mother and Elias. No, far better to show up early at St. John’s, to gab with Hoyer, to make connections. Hoyer, the top assistant coach, was rumored to be taking over at Hofstra.
Donnie was halfway to the tracks when he heard loud footsteps behind him. He turned and there was Marcus, in his Air Jordan sneakers, with his socks pulled up to his knees and his baggy orange Knicks shorts. Despite the icy weather, Marcus was not wearing a shirt. On both bare shoulders he wore tattoos with the letters “DM” stenciled in black inside a basketball. “Hoyer loves you,” said Marcus.
“Coaches love defense,” said Donnie.
“You taught me that,” said Marcus.
“Show me,” said Donnie. He cross-dribbled hard to his right, observed how Marcus nibbled on the fake but did not bite. “I’m so proud of you, Marcus. You’re going to be better than me.”
“I don’t know, bro. You got the height,” said Marcus.
They played a game of one-on-one on an outdoor court they found themselves standing upon. Donnie backed Marcus to the baseline, butt-bumped him, spun left and banked in a layup. He clenched his fists and pounded his chest – and the pain in his shoulder returned. He felt a frigid scraping sensation at the back of his shaved head. He lay on the gravel path leading to the lobby doors. Lights from inside the building sliced through the black February evening. How long had he been out? Only minutes, it seemed, for no one had discovered him and he was not that cold. He rose slowly, leery of the nurse’s diagnosis. He walked slowly to the Turnpike. Taxicabs sped toward the traffic lights. Green. Yellow. Red. Donnie flagged one down and went to work.
Donnie folded a dozen white towels, placing three in each stall of the four players to whom he was assigned. He re-laced their sneakers and slid them into their foot drawers. Finally he retrieved their red jerseys and shorts from the main closet and hung them inside their lockers.
For the other towel boys, these chores consumed a total of five minutes. Donnie basked in the tasks. Whenever he was alone, he tried on the St. John’s jerseys. He savored the silky feel of an authentic uniform, how (unlike his itchy Southbrook duds) you could wear it comfortably without a t-shirt underneath. A surge of activity replaced the torpor he had felt in the afternoon and early evening. Adrenaline, resilience – whatever it was, it was now inside young Donnie. As the players entered the locker room, he greeted them, one by one. As they dressed, he went from player to player, chanting their names, kneading their shoulders and upper backs, urging each one to give it all he had, particularly on defense.
At Southbrook, Donnie’s teammates indulged these locker room habits. For they knew, even before Marcus died, that all was not well in the Mercurio household. And after Marcus died – the Southbrook varsity excelled more than ever at feigning interest in Donnie’s pre-game quirks and exhortations. The St. John’s players were incapable of such fakery. But they let the kid do his thing. They stared in other directions as Donnie massaged them or shouted about defensive intensity.
The coaches, to a man, wished Donnie would lose the nonstop exuberance. But they never shared their distaste. Even Hoyer, who tempered Donnie with virile imperatives like “Cut it, Mercurio,” stopped issuing these curt edicts after Marcus died.
After the game, Donnie again prepared each stall with fresh towels. He filled a red bucket with ice cubes for a player named Rodney Richardson, who soaked his left foot after each game. A nearby sportswriter mentioned something about Hoyer and a job at UC Davis. “Where’s that?” asked Donnie.
“California,” said the writer, who had a large nose and glasses.
“Are they good?” asked Donnie.
“Is the pope Jewish?” said the writer. “That’s why they need a new coach.”
For the rest of the evening Donnie fancied himself as the heir apparent to a rich tradition of California collegians. The line stretched from Jason Kidd and Steve Nash in the 90s to OJ Mayo and Darren Collison in the 00s and to him, Donnie Mercurio, in the 10s. It was as if there were a spider web connecting every basketball player to the other, so that the moves and fakes and sneaker screeches of one generation came down to the next. There would be articles in Slam about him, how he overcame Marcus’s suicide and married Briana Wu, his one true love from high school. All hail the lord high Mercurio, Donnie the dominant! These delusions flowed unchecked through Donnie, though he had only just eavesdropped on the Hoyer-to-California gossip.
Soon the locker room was empty. Players and coaches and journalists, almost all with laptop bags strapped over their right shoulders and cell phones in their right hands, said goodbyes in the parking lot. Donnie saw a hatless Hoyer, cigarette tucked behind his right ear, texting on his BlackBerry. Lamppost lights reflected brightly off Hoyer’s bald head. Though Donnie had spoken to Hoyer on a thousand previous occasions, even telling him about Marcus, Donnie now felt as tense as he could ever remember, waiting for the coach to look up from his phone. He was as tense as he got before standardized tests, or when someone asked what his parents did for a living. “Need a ride somewhere, Mercury?” asked Hoyer, zipping his phone inside a jacket pocket.
“Nah, coach, I got the train,” said Donnie. “But is it true about California?”
“I hope so,” said Hoyer. He popped a rectangular piece of gum in his yellow-toothed mouth. “Well, see you next game.”
“Wait, coach,” said Donnie. “You think I could play for you out there?”
Hoyer unlocked his car doors and urged Donnie to climb inside the red Malibu. He keyed the ignition, got the heat going. The frosty windows began to clear. Hoyer chomped his gum, adjusted the rearview. “You know, Donnie, I got cut from every team I ever tried out for,” he said. “You’re better than I ever was, and you’re one of the best on Long Island. But college ball – it’s no insult if you’re not good enough.” He backed out of his parking space.
In the passenger seat, Donnie stared straight ahead. Was this the same Hoyer who praised his defensive intensity and mental toughness? Was this the Hoyer who’d hyped Hofstra to him? There was a level of bullshit going on. There was a level of Briana Wu making out with him one night and then limiting things to friendship the next morning. He looked at Hoyer, chewing loudly in the quiet car. He studied the coach’s nose, in profile. It was flat toward the top but at the bottom it jutted out round and sudden. It looked like a whistle.
“Marcus,” said Donnie. “Have I ever told you about Hoyer’s nose?”
Donnie felt a pinch in his left shoulder. “Tired?” asked Hoyer, squeezing his arm.
“How long was I asleep?” said Donnie. They were parked in front of his apartment building.
“You heard the news,” said Hoyer. “Don’t hate me, kiddo.”
“I’m good enough to play for you,” said Donnie.
“You can always transfer,” said Hoyer. “But Donnie, you need to prove it first at another college. Or in the semi-pro leagues in Europe.”
They shook hands. “Thank you, coach,” said Donnie. Once again, he trudged toward the lobby doors. Inside, when he reached the first-floor apartment, he paused. Sounds from the TV came through the door. He keyed it open and went straight to his room, determined to keep his head down. For a moment he glanced up. Martha Mercurio and Elias were cuddling on the couch.
On the lower bunk bed which formerly belonged to Marcus, Donnie lay down with the lights off. He thought of a girl he had seen in the arena that night. She was at least six feet tall, and looked like she could be a basketball player herself. She wore jeans and an orange sweater. Her skin was the color of wet soil. Her hair, he did not know about. She had kept her winter hat on throughout the game. It was a brown hat with an orange “C” on it, representing the Chicago Bears football team. “Let me see your hair,” Donnie whispered. He reached under her winter hat, felt what he imagined to be a thick pudding of brown curls. “You from Chicago?” he asked. “You have any siblings?”
He was crying. He turned onto his stomach and thought of Briana. Within one minute he was asleep.
Most mornings, it was Marcus who woke up first. With his feet he pushed up the mattress of the top bunk, on which Donnie slept. “You have to get up,” said Marcus. “Elias and Mom are still in bed. The TV is ours! We can watch Knicks highlights. We can see if you were on TV at the St. John’s game.”
“Let me sleep,” said Donnie.
“I’ll make you breakfast,” said Marcus. “Frosted Flakes or Froot Loops?”
The boys slurped their cold cereal while watching basketball playbacks from the previous evening. They knew the fun was over when they heard the squeal of the shower knobs and the splashes of water. The brothers rinsed their bowls and spoons, tied their sneakers, and ran to the park. It was four blocks away. Straight down the turnpike, left on Allenby, cross the street, there you were. Sometimes the Allenby crossing took as long as the rest of the trip. It certainly seemed to take as long, since ahead lay the joy of the park. The traffic light on Allenby was a trial. Marcus once counted out loud: forty-five seconds it took, for the green to float to yellow and finally red.
The rims at the park usually had no nets. Kids liked to climb the stanchions and steal them. Who knew why? It was like stealing street signs or hood ornaments or bike seats – you just did it.
The days when the rims had nets were the best days – even though the nets were made of chain, as opposed to the twine found in most gymnasiums. If you made a shot, you heard a percussive clang instead of a dry whap. But a chain net was still a net. It caught the ball briefly, corralled it, suspended it in midair, before dropping it to a spot directly beneath. There was nothing like it in other sports. There was no escaping hockey and soccer nets, if you were a puck or a ball. Football had goalposts, golf had holes, bowling had alleys, baseball had poles. Tennis nets were mesh gates. But a basketball net? It was actual webbing. It was interconnecting threads. It was the white spaces between the tiles on the filthy floor in the locker room where you wanted to nap. It was the mortar between the bricks on the side of a building. It was mazelike and gridlocked. It was a cat’s cradle with a hole at the bottom.
Donnie awoke to the sound of the television coming through his closed bedroom door. An anchorman discussed the Dow Jones and earnings expectations and interest rates. Donnie pulled the blanket over his head. He listened for his mother’s household noises. The smack of her heels on the kitchen tiles, the roar of her blow dryer from the bathroom. He heard neither, but knew it was possible she was just sitting on the coach with Elias.
Donnie reached for his cell phone to text Briana. He saw the time and realized he had slept through homeroom, first period, and second period. He felt the pain in his left shoulder. Despite it, he hurled his phone across the room. It crashed into the door and thudded to the ground, still in one piece. What was the point of going to school? Lawrence had warned him. The suspension was on. Never mind school – what was the point of even leaving his bedroom?
In early afternoon, the bedroom grew dark. Something in the midday sky blocked the flow of light coming through the window. Slowly, a plan of escape formed in his head. He rose from the bed and stuffed his backpack with t-shirts, boxers, basketball shorts, and his can of spray deodorant. He changed into his warmest clothes, layering long johns beneath a pair of black jeans and a long-sleeved shirt beneath his St. John’s sweatshirt. After wrapping a red bandana around his head, he donned his winter hat. He picked up his cell phone. It still functioned. To Briana he texted: i know i will always b just a friend 2 u but please call me in the next 3 hours please. Tucking his basketball under his left arm, then his right when he felt the pain in his shoulder, Donnie stepped into the hallway. He intentionally left his backpack behind. He looked for something in his mother’s room, on her bed; when he saw it, he calmly walked down the hallway.
“Are you sick?” shouted Martha. She stood up. The TV was blasting. A bulletin about European stocks flashed across the screen. Donnie felt more certain about what he was going to do. “Maybe you’d know,” shouted Donnie, “if you checked your voicemail like a normal person.”
“Watch your tone,” said Elias, staring at his laptop.
“Fuck you,” said Donnie.
“Whatever,” said Elias. “We’ll see where you are in a year, jocko.”
“Enough,” said Martha, moving toward the kitchen. “Why aren’t you in school?”
“Overslept,” said Donnie. He wondered if Lawrence had yet to notify his mother about the suspension. Or maybe it was just another message that she disregarded. “But mom,” he continued, “can I talk to you alone?”
“There’ll be none of that,” said Elias, muting the TV.
Donnie grinned. “Okay. I’ll be right back to announce my surprise.”
Elias daintily placed his open laptop on the couch, and followed Martha into the kitchen. Donnie strolled down the hallway. From his own room he retrieved his backpack. In his mother’s bedroom, her purse was still on the bed. In an act he had often contemplated but never completed, Donnie snatched his mother’s lone credit card – a Discover in Elias’s name – and returned to the kitchen, the card in the back pocket of his black jeans. Elias’s arms were folded; Martha brewed a pot of coffee. Neither looked up at him. “I’m going to start the final game of the season, ahead of Leggett,” said Donnie. “Lind is letting me because I’m a senior.”
“Oh,” said Elias.
“I thought you were a starter,” said Martha. Her eyes were on the coffeemaker.
“That’s my surprise,” said Donnie. He was not at all surprised at their non-reaction to his fabricated news. “See you later,” he said. He went out the door, through the lobby, and dribbled left-right-left on the cold February streets. He dribbled for a full five minutes before realizing he’d forgotten his gloves. He tucked the ball under his right arm. Hands in his pockets, he walked to the Southbrook train station, quickly.
On a nearly empty mid-afternoon train to Manhattan, Donnie daydreamed of Marcus’s funeral. The funeral, it seemed to him, was the opposite of a St. John’s game. The national anthem performed before each game always made him cry, though the rocket’s red glare had nothing to do with dead brothers. But at the funeral, the dirges didn’t produce a single tear. And the church itself didn’t feel like the right place for crying. High ceilings, dangling lights, the organ with its ginormous silver pipes shaped like sharpened crayons, the stained-glass windows, the fancy-ass crosses, and the statues of naked Jesus – who could cry in a place with so many decorations? He wanted to talk to Marcus about it.
He remembered standing by Marcus’s coffin, getting his final look, while Martha and Elias took theirs. How bitter he was, that Elias, not even married to his mother, got to look at dead Marcus. A part of Donnie longed for his biological father, Donnie Sr., to arrive out of nowhere and beat up Elias on the spot. Not that Donnie Sr. even knew Marcus. He had left town before Marcus was born, according to Martha.
Donnie recalled a writing exercise from seventh-grade, an essay about who your parents were and what they did for work. Donnie thought he had written, “My father left before Marcus was born.” But when it was his turn to read aloud, he realized he’d written, “My father left because Marcus was born.” He wondered about it now. He felt that he – Donnie – had been Marcus’s substitute father. He’d taught Marcus how to shave. He’d shown Marcus how to take a shower. He’d even shown Marcus how to shampoo yourself in a bath, back when they were young enough to bathe together and Martha sometimes left them alone in the tub, playing with their Matchbox cars.
In the casket, Marcus wore a white tuxedo. His once thick eyebrows and lashes now seemed crayoned upon his face. Donnie wanted to reach into the casket and push up Marcus’s sleeves, to see how the morgue people had bandaged or concealed the slashes on his wrists. He’d gashed himself with a Gillette Fusion blade he’d only just begun to use. It was Donnie who’d bought him the blade as a gift, just months before. Then came the world’s worst afternoon: the floor of the Southbrook boys’ locker room was covered with blood. Marcus’s teammates had found him right before a Friday practice. He had changed into his uniform before walking to the bathroom mirror, running the hot water, and slicing himself. Donnie did not find out until the varsity – which practiced in the larger gym at the other end of the school – came off the court. Coach Lind broke the news to him. Pamela Leggett drove him home. His mother and Elias were waiting for him. There was silence outside the apartment door, instead of the usual racket from the business channels. Inside, Elias was embracing Martha on the couch, holding her hands. Neither of them rose to greet him. Donnie walked to his room and lay on Marcus’s bed. “Who is going to hold my hands?” he thought.
He fell asleep on Marcus’s bed. The next morning, he hoped the whole thing had been a dream. But he knew it was not when he felt no kick, no legs pushing up the mattress beneath him. It was Saturday morning and Marcus was gone.
With frigid fingertips, Donnie squeezed the warm dough of the soft salty pretzel. On the Manhattan sidewalks there were piles of shoveled snow, the icy white peppered with dirt specks and gray city grime. Adults walked by in a hurry. Cars and yellow cabs and SUVs raced to beat the traffic lights. They didn’t walk or drive this fast in Southbrook. Donnie had been to the city before, but never under weekday circumstances.
He walked north a few blocks and found a copy center offering computers with Internet access. He logged onto a travel site and purchased a one-way ticket to Paris with Elias’s credit card. He knew no one in France and spoke not one word of French. But in Paris there was a semi-pro basketball league where lots of “overlooked” high school stars went to play. And for that reason alone, Donnie was due to depart in five hours. He printed out his ticket confirmation and zipped it into his backpack. In no hurry to return to the cold, competitive streets, he remained at the computer and watched basketball highlights, including a few from the French league. Life wouldn’t be bad, he thought, if you could just keep watching highlights in a warm room. He’d forgotten that Elias’s card was being charged a steep rate for the viewing privileges.
After watching an hour of basketball videos, Donnie departed. He walked a few blocks further north and entered the revolving doors of a hotel, hoping to find a bathroom. The warm lobby was largely vacant. Long leather couches surrounded circular glass tables. Donnie withdrew his Slam from his backpack and sat down to read. The section updating the Euro Leagues, which he normally skipped, now became a priority.
He thought he saw Hoyer, reading the Wall Street Journal, of all things, on a nearby couch. “Coach?” he said. The man on the couch did not look up. Donnie moved closer. The man had Hoyer’s bald head and odd whistle-like nose. “Do you know Coach Hoyer?” asked Donnie. The man put down his paper. “Sorry,” he said, and Donnie now saw that the man’s teeth where white and straight. Hoyer it was not.
Moments later Donnie was pissing at a urinal in the hotel bathroom, his backpack on his shoulders. “Why do poor people smoke cigarettes?” asked a familiar voice from behind him.
“I don’t know, Marcus,” said Donnie. He turned around and beheld his younger brother, shirtless and tattooed, wearing red mesh shorts with knee-high socks and high-top sneakers. “What kind of question is that anyway?”
“Just something I was thinking about,” said Marcus. “So many things they can’t afford, but they use their money to buy cigarettes.”
Donnie washed his hands at the sink. “Yeah, but it’s the same reason rich people buy cigarettes. People just want to smoke.” Donnie eyed his brother. He exhaled hard, put his hand on the sink to steady himself. “Hey, Marcus,” he said. “You know, you were my only son. I didn’t think I treated you so bad.”
“It wasn’t you, Donnie,” said Marcus. “It was just – life.” Marcus crouched on the bathroom floor. His index finger traced the lines between the black-and-white hexagonal tiles. “I mean, Donnie, honestly – tell me what there was to look forward to.”
“Saturday mornings,” shouted Donnie. “Basketball highlights. Making fun of Elias. Lots of shit,” he said. Donnie crouched, lowering himself to Marcus’s eye level. But his head kept on dropping, until it crashed into what he thought would be an unforgiving floor of tile; instead, the surface was giving. When he awoke, Donnie found his head had smacked the plush leather armrest of the hotel couch. His Slam had fallen to the carpet.
His phone was ringing. Briana – she really did care! But no. It was Elias. Donnie did not answer. On his voicemail, he heard, “Donnie, do you have my Discover…” and hung up. He paced the heated hotel lobby. What if his ticket was no longer valid? How could he get to Europe…today? Did ships make the trip? He needed the Internet.
His phone rang again. Elias. “I don’t have your card,” said Donnie.
“Well, that’s funny, someone using my card bought a ticket to France in your name,” said Elias.
“Your mom’s right here. She’s not in a Kinko’s in Manhattan. I mean, Donnie, seriously. Do you even have a passport?”
Donnie hung up. He closed his eyes. He wanted to be back in his dream with Marcus. He wanted to be back at yesterday’s basketball practice, working on his new shooting motion. He opened his eyes. On the couch beside him were his backpack, his Slam, and his winter coat. Looking at his objects, his glance all but saying It’s been a pleasure, Donnie walked toward the hotel doors. He stepped outside. The frigid air clawed at his skin. In the street, the cars and trucks and taxis and SUVs sped by. Traffic lights dangled left right left in the cold cold wind. Green. Yellow. Red. Donnie felt his fingers going numb. He thought of frozen fish sticks.
A new group of vehicles sped by, coming from the cross street. Pedestrians stood on the corner, looking up at the traffic light, ready to stride once the signal changed. In an instant a new yet old idea took hold of Donnie. His fingers now were not so cold. Donnie watched the traffic light swaying. When it went to yellow, he spotted an accelerating truck, picking up speed in order to make the light. When the moment arrived, he charged into the street. The first thing he felt was the front grate of the truck ramming into his ribs, snapping his head back and knocking the wind from his lungs. The last thing he felt was the back of his head slamming the pavement. Everything went blank and black, black and blank. The colors up and vanished. His mind flashed through one final memory of himself and Marcus in the bathtub, playing with their Matchbox cars. Then Donnie was gone, another basketball player whose elations and sorrows once were consecrated in ink on young muscular arms.
Ilan Mochari's novel, Zinsky the Obscure (Fomite Press), is now available for pre-order on Amazon. His short stories have appeared in Keyhole, Stymie, Ruthie's Club, and Oysters & Chocolate. Another story was a finalist in a Glimmer Train competition. He has a B.A. in English from Yale. He used it to wait tables for nine years at various restaurants in the Boston area.