Much of this article initially appeared in a longform fiction project written by Bryan Harvey for You Can’t Eat the Basketball. Since then, the piece has been revised to account for Victor Oladipo’s current wishes to escape the Indiana Pacers.
The car sat on the side of the road, in the gravel between worn asphalt and dry, yellowing crops. The owner stood beneath the car, in a ditch. His pants unzipped, he was taking a much-needed piss. He had been driving through postcard shaped states for days, living off trucker food, coffee, and Cliff bars. His fluff of yellow hair sprung from his eggshell of a forehead like the down of a newborn chick. He ran a hand through it, zipped up his pants with the other, and climbed out of the irrigation channel. He would need to make up for lost time, he thought, climbing back into the car. He turned the key in the ignition, screeched the rubber against the loose gravel. He unfurled a dust storm and burned up the road like a goddamn Apollo. Outside the dark shadows of his bar, he felt much more himself — like a house on fire, he sucked in as much oxygen as his lungs could hold.
County lines passed under the steel body of his Detroit-made chariot, maybe a state line as well. He found himself in the nowhere land of Texas. Creosote scrub lining the highway. “Damn, if this ain’t the driest place on earth.” He kept on driving. The sun melted purple on the horizon, breaking like some LA junkie’s vein. He thought about a trip to Hollywood or two, and then he thought how those were a long time ago and no longer part of the landscape. The sky went black. He kept driving. He had a destination in mind, but he was taking a roundabout way of arriving. He was searching for something — for someone — he would recognize whatever or whomever when he found them. This is how the New World worked. Carnivorous creatures roamed the forests that emptied into prairies that rose into mountains. Wildcats and coyotes followed in the footsteps of dinosaurs, and so did men. He drove through the night.
In the morning, he watched the meter hover about the capital ‘E’ for nearly an hour after dawn broke yellow behind him. He pulled up to a gas station so covered in dust he wondered if such was the building block of everything. He popped the lid of his gas tank. He sat the metal nozzle in the car’s dark throat. He pulled back on the trigger, not once, but three times. A memory from the west coast, from the east coast, buzzed in his brain and then fell silent and dry like Indiana cornmeal. He gritted his teeth. He went inside, looking for someone to pay. No one was at the register. He eyed the John Deere calendar, sun-faded on the back wall, next to a poster of some forgotten basketball team: The Triple J Ranch. Dear God, he thought, when will some people join the future? He wandered in the aisles of snack food trinkets. He picked up a mousetrap. He set it down. He found himself standing in a short hallway with two closed doors and one open door. He walked by the rubber stopper that propped open the door and out into the sunlight that baked the blood and water of that ancient land into something like a ghostly haze. And then he heard it — the sound of a plastic ping pong ball bouncing in a steady rhythm against a flat, hard surface. He turned to face it.
A bottle of Coca-Cola sat on the corner edge of the faded green table, sweating bullets. The kid was all gangly length and thick-rimmed glasses. He rocked awkwardly on his hips, like he was made from pieces of bone that didn’t quite fit together. The boy carried the asymmetry mostly in his hips, but, boy! could he whip that ball around!
“Morning,” said Bird to the boy.
The boy caught the ball in his bare hand and rested the paddle on it with the other. He answered back: “Morning.”
“You got a name?”
“To go before I sleep?”
“No, just Myles.”
“Well, Myles, lower that table’s other half and let’s play a round.”
At first, Larry felt queasy in the bright light of the Texas heat, but, eventually, his thoughts dissipated in the rhythm of the game and he found himself enamored with the boy’s effort and length. The ball would careen off the side of the warped table at odd angles, and the boy would be there. The ball would plop in a dead spot of the table’s rain-soaked memories, and the boy would manage to keep it alive. In the end, Larry was impressed enough to up the ante: “If I win, how ‘bout you give me a free tank of gas?”
Myles stared at the man for a long while. “Okay.” He repositioned his red-stained shoes in the dirt. He leaned in as if to serve. “But,” he started, “if I win, you take me with you.”
“But,” he started, “if I win, you take me with you.”
Larry grinned at the boy and laughed, “If you win, sure.”
The old man started strong, but, in the end, his game melted. When he needed to mount a comeback the most, he double-faulted twice.
“I guess that’s it,” he said, “Let’s go.” He dropped his paddle in the dust and walked back down that short hallway of locked doors and through the aisles of useless items. He left eleven dollars on the counter next to the dust-covered cash register. He made the short stroll to his ride. He opened the driver’s side door. He climbed in. He waited. When Myles came out the store’s front door, he had not a possession on him. Before he climbed in the passenger’s side, he filled up the tank with what Bird assumed to be 11 dollars-worth of gas. And then the two rode off into the hot day and, eventually, the sunset. The next day they would do the same.
Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images
By week’s end, they had traversed several county and state lines and found themselves on the edge of a Florida swamp. Bird pulled off on a secluded road and popped the trunk. “Go around back and pull that black bag out of the car. When you get it out, start dragging it into the woods. I’ll be with you in a second to help.”
Myles did as the man said. He went around to the steel bumper. He lifted up the trunk door. The odor was unpleasant, cooked and yet not. He hoisted the bag out of the trunk and plopped it on the ground.
“Be quick about it, Myles.”
Myles looked towards Mr. Bird, and it looked like the man might be smoking a cigarette. Then the boy smelled gas and noticed the man emptying a can on the front seats. Myles wiped the sweat from his brow and started to tug harder at what felt like a body inside the bag. He was some ways into the woods when Mr. Bird joined him and lifted the other end of the bag. A shock of red flame exploded behind the man. The car was on fire, lighting up the dark road like a bonfire!
“Won’t someone see the car?”
“I hope so, but . . . either way, we won’t be here when they do.”
Moving the bag went much quicker with help. In some time, they came to a clearing and Mr. Bird dropped his end of the bag. Then the man reached around a tree trunk and pulled out a shovel. He tossed it at Myles, and Myles had to drop his end of the bag to catch it.
“Dig!” barked the man. “I’ll be back soon.”
Myles started to dig. The earth was soft, and water trickled into the spaces stabbed and emptied by the shovel. He dug with a fury that was on the edge of panic, mostly because he didn’t know where Mr. Bird had gone to and if he would return. He could see the glimmer of the car burning out past the tree line on the edge of the darkness. He did not want to be caught with whatever it was in the bag. He assumed anything worth burying must be worth trouble, too.
When he deemed the hole wide enough and deep enough, he walked over to the black bag. He stood over it like the Colossus at Rhodes, but he was just a boy from Texas lost in the dark swamps of the Florida woods. He held a shovel instead of a spear. He leaned forward, grabbing hold of the black bag’s zipper. He moved his arm slowly. He undid the mystery.
Inside, a bloated, white face stared back at him. The man’s lips were like purple slugs. His hairline had receded tremendously. The smell was horrendous. Myles stepped away from the body and threw up a trucker’s serving of meatloaf. Then he walked back to the body and did as Mr. Bird had ordered—he buried it. When he was finished, he heard the man’s voice: “You about done, Myles.”
“I—I think so.”
“Well, we’ve still got miles to go. Bring that shovel with you.” And the man was off sprinting through the woods, and Myles felt he had no choice but to chase after him. Gnats and mosquitoes swarmed around his head. His shoes often sunk into the murk. At some point, he lost the shovel. They climbed over a mound of knotted tree root. They waded through bogs. He had a hard time believing the old man could move as he did. Then they came to a small pier. At the end of it, a man stood waiting, switching a flashlight on and off.
“Took you long enough.”
“I brought you some help.”
The man shone the flashlight in Myles’ face. “He’s too young.”
“He’ll do just fine, Paul — trust me, he just buried Vogel all by his lonesome.”
Myles wiped his mouth with his forearm. He watched the two men climb into the motorboat waiting to take them all out of the swamp. “Well,” said the man Mr. Bird had referred to as Paul, “You climbing in or not?”
Myles didn’t see where he had the choice. He climbed in for the ride. He watched the moon disappear and reappear through the branches of the swamp’s canopy. He figured there was no map for where they might be headed — one just had to guess and pray that he was right, and so that’s just what he did.
Cicadas and tree frogs filled the night air. A symphony of crickets.
Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports
The sound cut out and the screen went blank.
“You see,” said a voice all too familiar, “these issues date back to a time before you were here. They are, one could say, bigger than you — and they will, for that reason, outlast you.”
Victor, who was currently zip-tied to the desk chair, rolled his head in disgust toward the man addressing him. “I heard you lost to your sister.”
The skinny man with windmill blades for ears snapped the remote control in his hands. Then he composed himself. “We don’t talk about that.”
“Seems like we should. I have three sisters myself.”
The captive looked to his captor. His captor now had his hands around his own neck. He flicked his tongue in and out like a toad’s.
“What are you doing? Are you trying to choke me? Is that some Darth Vader nonsense?”
“Look, we all have a part to play. Are you on this side or not?”
“I’m not on any side, man, I’m zip-tied,” and he jerked at his confines until the chair made a clacking sound: its wheels bunny-hopping on the concrete floor.
“Shall I hit play, Mr. Oladipo? Shall I welcome you to your Kodak moment?”
The chair wheels continued to clack against the concrete floor until Victor Oladipo grew too tired to fight. Then he laughed, and his captor laughed too. Victor kept laughing. Then he said, “You sound so old — I don’t even know what Kodak is.”