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“He’d rather pass than shoot.” That was the first thing my agent, Marv Drinkman, told coaches about me. Now Drink was passing away, wasting away. From 280 he was down to 170, the cancer eating away inside faster than Drink could put away his usual five meals a day. These days he fit in his hospice chair, which he hated because it didn’t have those heavy-duty wheels his custom-made office chair had. In that seat, Drink rolled back and forth between his two desks and sent players like me—misfits and refits, two inches too short, thirty pounds too small, many of us way too light—all over the globe, but Drink refused to haul his pounds through the marathon terminals of the new airports. Even after cell phones, he stuck to his Cincinnati law office. “I’m the unmoved mover,” he said. “Let those other agents go on the road like salesmen.” The other agents, of course, were chasing multimillion-dollar, no-cut NBA contracts and could afford the wide seats of business class. Before the euro, Drink worked in liras, pesos, francs, deutsche marks , and currencies I still don’t recognize. My deal was in drachmas, and I had to change my name from Keever to Kyvernos to get the money. Drink assured me the Greeks would never want to know who I really was. But he was wrong about that, so I never collected my bonus. And Drink never got his ten percent.
“I still think you must have screwed up in Athens, Key,” he’s telling me again, still looking for that percentage even though he has nobody to leave it to.
“You got your cut from Italy and Spain.”
“But you never took that deal I wrote you in Nice.”
“You saw the way I was limping in that Caja San Fernando Seville tape I sent you. The only way I could have squeezed out another year was to play in Lourdes.”
Drink lolls his big bald head. Even the tufts he used to let grow over his ears are gone. Behind his half-lenses, his eyes are milky.
“Maybe I should go there, now that I fit through the scanner.”
“I think you’re supposed to be Catholic, Drink.”
“If I was Catholic, I wouldn’t need to go. I’d be heading for a better place. Better than Resort.”
Drink classified the leagues he sent us to: Resort, Tourist, and Exile. Resort were the southern European, Tourist were mostly South American and Scandinavian, Exile were the rest—Saudi Arabia, Philippines, Taiwan. We all assumed Drink was Jewish. He had or pretended to have a New York accent and made his living at one desk doing Personal Injury. Whenever I was in his office, though, he always put the rear-ended victim on hold and rolled to the other desk to talk with a player or general manager returning one of his persistent calls. That’s why Drink had a lot of tall visitors in the hospice.
“You should still be playing someplace,” was how he greeted all of us, even me with my artificial hip. I owed a lot to Drink. Not just jumping me overseas when I was done with the CBA but also the settlement I got from a TV network, which I’ve agreed not to name. When Ann and Sara and I came back from Spain, I got into refereeing and, after a year doing high school games, was working an Atlantic 10 conference game. I was running backward down the sideline, using my point-guard anticipation to get out ahead of the fast break, when I tripped over the TV sound man who had stuck his mike out too far toward the floor. Like the jurors, you can see the backflip on the tape. I landed on my right hip, and it had to be replaced. Drink found me an orthopedist to saw the head off my femur, hammer a steel spike down into the bone, and jam the ball on that spike into the plastic socket he’d screwed into my pelvis. Then Drink got me the insurance settlement I put into “Key Security,” which consisted of a surveillance van with great video capabilities.
Drink was against that investment, not just because I might tape a client of his, one who wasn’t injured quite as badly as he said. But also because Drink figured I would hate sitting still in the van, waiting for the Workmen’s Compensation cheats to come out on their lawns and pass the football around with their kids.
“You’re warning me against sitting in one place?” I asked him at the time. Back then, I didn’t want to come out of my house. First the walker, then the crutches, then the cane. I’d planned to run the floor until I was sixty-five, even if I did have to wear a striped shirt and sneak out of college gyms. With only a leg and a half, I felt my life was over.
“That hip will come around,” Drink used to tell me. “I’ll get you back on the floor in no time.”
Drink meant as an assistant coach. I’d done that for a year before going to Europe, and I hated the recruiting, whispering promises in the ears of zit-faced kids with six inches of designer undershorts showing above their pants. About my replacement career, I didn’t listen to my agent, so for the past two years I’ve been the man in the van, sort of a tomb on tires.
I’d driven the van to the hospice to see if Drink wanted to go for a ride. I’d get him in a wheelchair, one with large wheels, and load him in.
“Not today,” Drink says.
“That’s what you say every day I’m here.”
“There won’t be that many left.”
Drink was just as honest about his body as he was about ours: “5-10, 178, talks a good game but slow to the toilet. Can’t defend. Will never rebound.”
But today I’m ready for him.
“Sunday, Drink. I’m coming on Sunday. I called Freddie Welch. He’ll open up Conseco Fieldhouse for you to see.”
“You called Freddie, Key? I never moved a player to the Pacers, not even on a ten-day contract. Twenty years I’m over here, and Freddie never took one of my guys.”
“Maybe that’s why he’s going to give you the personal treatment. He probably knows he passed up some players he could have used. So Sunday, Drink, we’re taking the tour.”
“Let me see how I feel. I wouldn’t want to miss a call.”
Drink was still trying to place some of his older players, the guys a quarter step away from early retirement, thirty years before Social Security kicked in.
“Nobody’s going to call you in June. Sunday, Drink, I’m moving you.”
Drink seemed to enjoy the two-hour ride over to Indy. He laughed at the billboards. “Choose life.” “Troubled? Try Prayer.” He knew all about the caskets made in Batesville, even if the manufacturer wasn’t advertising out on I-74. “I should get a class action together,” Drink said, “save the terminally ill from insult and injury. We ought to be a protected minority, you know. We have a problem bigger than race or gender.”
I didn’t know how Drink did it, joked about dying. He never spoke to me about being afraid. Maybe he was, but he never spoke about it.
On the I-465 loop outside Indianapolis, Drink started complaining about Freddie, all the calls he never returned, the players he refused to bring in for a tryout. But when I wheeled Drink into Conseco, he was polite. It was a summer Sunday in Indianapolis, after all, and Freddie with his Florida tan and plaid Bermudas looked like he’d sacrificed the back nine to show Drink around. The building was full retro, a cross between London’s Victoria Station and those old curved-roof fieldhouses you see in photos at the Basketball Hall of Fame, glass on both ends, a peach basket nailed up to the balcony, dirt or sand for the long jumpers next to the court. On the brick walls inside were hand-painted ads, the kind that look like coffee should be a penny and sneakers be made of canvas. Between the ads were trophy cases filled with Pacers and other Indiana basketball memorabilia. I pointed out Oscar Robertson’s jersey from Crispus Attucks High School in Indy. Drink knew Oscar in Cincinnati. I thought he’d get a kick out of all the photos, jerseys, old balls, and sneakers. Freddie was selling the past pretty hard, how Conseco was like a cathedral and shrine all in one.
“It’s a nice building, Freddie, and I appreciate your bringing me in,” Drink said, “but this stuff depresses the shit out of me.”
Freddie wasn’t about to question a dying man, but I sensed Drink had more to say.
“Why’s that?” I asked him.
“What did I always say about my players, Freddie?”
“‘He will,’ Marv. You always told me what a kid will do for me. Not what he’d done or would do, but what he will do.”
“That’s right, so all this past shit makes me sad. It’s like a mummy case. Plus it’s all high-end. Where are my CBA guys from Ball State, Indiana State, Vincennes JC? Where are the brothers from Gary high schools I jumped overseas when they couldn’t go JC?”
“We couldn’t put every Hoosier in the cases, Marv.”
“Yeah, I know. Even cemeteries are getting filled up in cities.”
I’d told Freddie that Drink was dying. Now Freddie was probably dying to get this shrunken agent out of his building, but he was generous.
“Let’s take a look at the floor,” he said.
Only there was no floor. It had been taken up for the summer, so rodeos and rock groups could entertain Pacers fans with nothing better to do until November 1. I wheeled Drink around the cement while Freddie talked about the sky boxes, the grosses, the sponsors. Drink was silent, a bad sign for a man who used to have two telephones. I should have known not to bring Drink here. The cooled and darkened arena must have felt like a mausoleum, large and getting huge as Drink’s wasting body was losing weight and mass.
“Would you like to see the lockers, Marv?” Freddie asked.
“No thanks. I don’t get out much, and I’m afraid I’ll fall asleep. But I appreciate your showing me around.”
I figured that was it, but Drink had something more to say as we wheeled back to the lobby.
“You’re going to have a great club this year, Freddie. You’re nine deep. But you will still need some help, somebody to practice against Damon. I’ll send you tape of Sonny Picone. He’s been in Belgium losing weight, working on his three. He will definitely go hard in practice. Damon needs to be pressed, now with that big contract. Sonny is big enough and quick enough. He will make Damon work.”
Drink moved me from the Rockford Lightning to the Celtics for my ten-day. But I knew for a fact he had never jumped anybody back from Europe to the NBA. Now Drink was using his death to make Freddie watch tape. That was why Drink came to Indy, not to move himself but to jump Sonny Picone.
“Send the tape, Marv. I’ll have Isiah give Picone a look.”
While I was risking my life getting out of Indy on the expressway, Drink nodded off. Halfway home, he started mumbling. At first, I couldn’t tell if he was sleeping or not. Then he seemed to be speaking to me from some road-sway reverie.
“Move ’em anywhere they want to go. Jump the poor bastards if they want. Make ’em players under two minutes. Buzzer-beaters. Low overhead. Shit, no overhead. Word of mouth. Hook ’em up, Key. You’ve covered the ground, know the resorts. Get out of this van.”
Drink wants me to become an agent, I thought, wants to give his business to me.
“I’m not a lawyer, Drink.”
“So what?” he said more firmly. “You’ve got a driver’s license. You’ve been in and out of a hundred airports. You’ve still got a passport, don’t you?”
“I don’t understand.”
“Terminal Tours, Key. Start a business. Take people like me on their last trips, wherever they want to go, wherever they think they want to go.”
“That could be a tough ten percent, Drink. Anyway, I thought you hated this little tour.”
“No such thing. It got me mad. OK, so I’ve been mad since the Doc started counting down. This gave me a chance to go off on Freddie, that dumb shit. And being inside Conseco just confirmed what I’ve been feeling since they built that place. It’s all wrong, an insurance company sponsoring basketball. You know that, Key. Run one second, done the next.”
I’d never heard Drink talk this way. It was like a message I was supposed to pass on. Run and done. Yes, I knew that.
Drink nodded off again. When we got back to city streets, he woke up.
“Get out of the van, Key. You’re eating yourself up and you’re only thirty-eight. Terminal Tours. I’m gonna find you some clients at the hospice.”
And he did. The first was an eighty-five-year-old woman who wanted to visit her childhood home. Drink got Agnes’s guardian to write me a check for $200, and I drove her the eighty miles to Wooster, Ohio. At about eighty-five pounds, Agnes could have used a car seat in the van. All the way she talked about her parents and older brothers, “gone now to the other side, ” she told me, expecting me to be as surprised as she was. Agnes remembered the smells of her mother cooking porridge, the clickety-clack sound Milton made going down the cellar stairs to feed the dog, the feel of George’s greasy hair when he went out “sparking,” but her eyes were failing and she thought that explained why she was having trouble visualizing the house on Oak Street where she and her brothers grew up.
“Twenty-three Oak,” Agnes told me, “easy to remember because two parents and three children. Two-three, you see?”
“Got it,” I told her.
“And what about you, what are your numbers?” she asked.
At first, I thought she meant my uniform numbers or career assist-to-turnover stats, but she meant the numbers on my homestead.
“We didn’t have numbers. I grew up on a potato farm in Vermont. For as long as I can remember, everybody called it the old Beck place, but my father called it Peck’s Peak. You know, pecks of potatoes.”
Agnes thought that was funny. I didn’t tell her my mother called the farm Calvary, a hill of stones. Or that both my parents were also in the ground, twenty-five years earlier than Agnes.
On the outskirts of Wooster I stopped at a gas station and asked for directions to Oak Street. The young woman collecting money from the self-servers had never heard of it. She sent me into the bays where three older guys were standing around drinking coffee.
No Oak Street in Wooster. Never had been, as far as their collective wisdom went back. I asked for the town hall, and got the same results there. Agnes was waiting in the van. Twenty-three, two-three. She had the numbers but not much time left. I hated to disappoint her.
“I’ll bet people weren’t so dumb when you were growing up here,” I told her. “Nobody can give me the same directions. We’ll just drive around the old residential streets until we find Oak.”
I knew Agnes couldn’t read the street signs, so I asked what her house looked like. She peered out the window and identified features on houses we passed. Three-story, she was sure. Shotgun, like that one there but white. A large tree in the front yard, an oak, not that sickly spruce. I told her that her house would have been repainted, that the tree might be gone. I collected more features. A porch, she thought. A large brick house next door, maybe. I drove up and down the streets, looking for a match. When I found one, I drove to the end of the block and turned around.
“Agnes, you’re not going to believe this, but we’ve been on Oak and didn’t know it.”
“Land’s sakes,” she said. “Now you have to look for twenty-three.”
I drove slowly to the match. I was sure Agnes couldn’t read the forty-seven in small numerals above the mailbox. I stopped the van.
“Here it is,” I told Agnes.
She started to cry. “That’s just wonderful,” she said and reached over to squeeze my hand. “To think that I lived here all through high school and couldn’t remember what it looked like. But now it all comes back to me, even without the tree. I even like the yellow they’ve painted it, don’t you?”
“It looks very nice, Agnes.”
“Wonderful,” she said again, “old twenty-three Oak.”
“I’m going to shoot some videotape so you can play it at the hospice.”
“Oh, that would really be nice. Do you think you should ask the owners first?”
“That’s not necessary.”
I got out and found an angle where the pillar on the front porch obscured the number above the mailbox. I moved to the left and used the other pillar. Drink told me Agnes had no family, only a guardian. Nobody would ruin Agnes’s taped memory. It’s what she came here for, something certain, something comforting, to take with her to “the other side.”
“I can’t wait to see the movie,” she said over and over again on the ride back to Cincinnati.
Drink’s other client was more difficult, more like Drink himself. Jerome wanted to visit one of the riverboat casinos on the Ohio River, fifty miles south of Cincinnati in Indiana. Jerome was fifty-five but looked seventy-five, hospital-pale skin over hard sinew, false teeth up and down. He was in the last stage of prostate cancer, but his wife wouldn’t take him to the casino.
“She’s against gambling,” Jerome told me, “hard-core Baptist like her dearly departed cross-eyed mother, that bitch. My boy sent me my stake from Oakland.”
Jerome counted out my twenties. The bones in his hands looked like a firm shake would crush them.
“Cash came in one of them cardboard cartons, if you believe that. Had to sign and everything. That boy’s a fool, but he’ll be here for the funeral, I’m pretty sure.”
I handed back my twenties.
“Tell you what, Jerome, you buy some chips with this money and we’ll split what you win.”
“You think this is my lucky day? Awright, then. We will show that bitch. Even after they shot the shit out of me with that radiation all she could talk about was one of them big double-door refrigerators. If I can triple up these twenties, I’m gonna have Best Buy deliver that double door so she can store me in one half if she wants.”
On the ride to Lawrenceburg, I found out Jerome had never been to a casino. But he’d been reading a book about roulette. He called it a dead man’s game. Ball goes around and around and drops in a hole. The way he described it, roulette sounded a little like basketball. But on the table the shooting percentages were much worse. And Jerome didn’t believe in his own body, its feel and touch. Why should he, radiated and ravaged as he was by that little gland that drove him to marry old double - door? “Nope,” Jerome said, “I got a system.” He was going to buy thirty-eight ten-dollar chips, the number of holes in the wheel, and play the same number thirty-eight times. Twenty-three, I thought, Agnes’s number. And that other Michael’s, the rich one—Michael Jordan. But I didn’t say anything. This was Jerome’s last play, and he had to choose his own number if he was going to get any satisfaction from leaving his bitch wife, daughter of his bitch mother-in-law, the refrigerator Jerome hoped would make her “feel guilty the rest of her natural life.”
Drink’s suggestion—Terminal Tours—came to mind in Lawrenceburg. We had to wait on the dock for the boat to come back to shore . When it did we went in with the rest of the gamblers, the boat went about thirty yards out into the river, and anchored. In two hours, we’d return. The Ohio was like that river Styx, but we’d get a two-way ride back to Indiana.
Jerome walked around the floor, looking for just the right croupier, a woman about his age who looked like she might be dying herself, maybe from all the cigarette smoke, the noise, and the desperation in the twenties she handled. Jerome was playing yellow, possibly to match his skin. With the twenties I’d given back, he bought green.
I asked him if he wanted me to leave. This looked like a game he might want to play out by himself.
“Shit no, Mike, I need you to help cash in the chips I’m gonna be hauling off this table.”
The croupier spun the wheel and released the ball. After Jerome and a young black woman put their chips down, the croupier passed her hand over the table and said, “No more bets.” It was a beautiful motion, graceful yet authoritative, like a magician’s or priest’s sealing of the moment’s fate, the croupier somehow taking control of the ball’s random rattle in and out of the wheel’s holes.
Jerome is playing thirteen. The number someone whose number has come up would play.
The sixth or seventh spin, thirteen comes up. Three spins later, it comes up again. Ten spins more, and he hits thirteen again. He hands me his yellow chips and says, “Keep that Frigidaire in your pocket.”
With my green chips, Jerome starts playing seven. This is what death does, I realize, makes one predictable, like one’s death. It’s Jerome’s lucky day now that I have the refrigerator in my pocket. The croupier keeps raking in my green chips, but Jerome has faith. After about ten spins, seven comes up. Jerome picks up his chips and says, “Now I can send my stake back to my boy.”
“Wonderful,” Jerome says, just like Agnes. “Fucking wonderful.”
When we cash out, my share is $350, less Drink’s ten percent.
That’s how Key Security started to become Terminal Tours. Not that I believed the terminally ill were good luck for me. But I seemed good luck for them. Ann wanted to call the business “Happy Endings,” but after Drink died I insisted on his name for it. With Drink gone and only word of mouth to get me out of the van, my sideline would have died fast. But Ann and some of her office friends cooked up a web site that got mentioned in Wired Magazine and then in Newsweek. The site you are now reading lit up, e-mail broadcast where word of mouth failed, and I had to hire a guy to sub for me in the van.
You can’t believe how many people are dying. And how many of them have the money to pay for a tour. Terminal Tours is no Make-A-Wish Foundation for adults. The “pilgrim”—Ann’s replacement for Drink’s “client,” my “customer”—covers both our expenses and pays me a per diem. I think it’s the new laws that give the terminally ill access to their life insurance policies that pile up my frequent-flyer miles. I keep Drink’s terminology. I move people around in the States, jump them overseas. I don’t need to sell myself. They have a desire and I go along for the ride. Like Drink, I always use “will.” I tell the pilgrims they will take the trip they want, the only future most of them have. I guess I’m an agent, and I like to think of pilgrims as players. The clock is winding down, the pressure is on, their minds light up like the web site, their bodies find new strength, they make their move, take their shot or make their pass. Before the buzzer.
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