back to the Black Table

 About two weeks after I arrived home to Mattoon almost two months ago, ostensibly to work on my book but also to straighten up the relentless mess my life had become, I borrowed money from my parents. A lot of money. Not a 20-spot so I didnít have to run to the ATM. Not 100 bucks to tide me over until a random freelancing check was deposited. I mean a shitload of money. Iíll put it this way: I borrowed more money from my parents than you have ever borrowed from your parents.

I am 25 years old.

I had done my best to put off what should have been clearly inevitable. Once we were all laid off, I realized that, unlike others, I had not prepared. There was no nest egg to fall back on. I had no magic benefactor. I had been living check-to-check for quite some time, which is fine when youíre sure each of those checks will come. It tends to bite you in the ass when it doesnít.

I had two choices. I could either pay all that I owed and likely not eat for a month or two ... or I could skip rent. Just for one month, just this once, Iíll get it back when Iím employed next week. Iím sure the landlord wonít mind. Iíve been good about it up to this point. One month I skip ... heck, itís not a big deal. I mean, Iím obviously employable and dependable, Iíve got my shit together. Iím the least of their problems, Iím sure. Iíll make enough money in the next month to make up for it.

Then that month passed. I had made no more money. Zilch. Some freelance opportunities fell through. People were not lining up to buy Ironminds the way I thought they might. It was now obvious that I was officially unemployed. Rent came up again. This time, Iíd spent most of the money that would have been earmarked for rent the month before. Sure, my editor at Ironminds had donated some cash from ďthe Ironminds fund,Ē but since I was doing my best to prove to everyone that all was well, that I was not broke, no no, I was just fine, nothing to see here ... that money evaporated quickly. Rent was not going to be paid this month either. Two months. Not a big deal. Just going through a rough spot. Iíll catch up next month.

Then next month came, and by now, I couldnít lie. No money, no nothing. I was falling behind on my book as well. I came up with the solution: I would go home, finish my book and, to be entirely honest, hide from the rapidly increasing number of bills piling up at the Greenwich Village apartment. My roommate had moved out, taking a new job in San Francisco, so he wouldnít know what was happening anyway. Who knows ... maybe I would somehow make enough money in the next two months through freelancing to pay the whole thing off ... maybe? ...

And then two weeks in Mattoon passed, and my roommate caught wind of the whole deal, and he - he of the sweet Southern charm and firm Methodist faith - called me from San Francisco and was so angry he used words Iíd never heard him use before. ďWe are three months behind on rent. They are going to evict us. I donít know about your credit - though I have my suspicions - but mineís fine, and Iím not going to let you [screw] it up. You find some way to pay it. I donít know how, but you find out a way.Ē

My roommate was doing the right thing, of course, and when you broke it down, I had only one option. I swallowed every remaining bit of pride - and, truth be told, there wasnít much to swallow - and drove the six miles from cousin Dennyís to my parentsí place. It was the only place I had to turn. They werenít home. I waited, and waited, and waited, and they never showed. Tired, I left them a note explaining the situation and dropped by the next morning. My mother was waiting: ďWe got your note.Ē She looked sad, too forlorn for mere disappointment. My parents had always known I was flaky, and perhaps had my head in the clouds more than was good for me. But it had never come to this before. For the first time, it was obvious, she was seriously questioning everything she thought she knew about her son. Oh my, her eyes said ... he might really be a screw-up.

ďLet me talk to your father.Ē

I am 25 years old.

The next weekend, after they had given me the money, I, feeling deeply depressed and more than a little worthless, decided to visit old friends at The Sporting News in St. Louis, about two hours away. I drove a beaten up old 1986 Chevy Caprice, the green mile, to see Matt and Chris and Brian and Liz and Benson and Jason and all the crew. Shortly after I left TSN, Paul Allen bought the magazine, and everyone who stayed earned bonuses that entered the five figures. But I didnít care. I had left for my fame and fortune and New York City, and I think, secretly, my friends at TSN thought I was going to find it. When I came back a year later, penniless, unshaven, despondent and depraved, Matt and Chris and Brian and Liz and Benson and Jason and all the crew couldnít mask their pity. I hadnít turned out how they had expected at all. It was wonderful to see everyone - I had missed them even more than I had remembered - but it was a miserable, humiliating trip.

About a half hour into the drive home, I noticed an unusually plentiful amount of smoke shooting out the exhaust pipe. I pulled to a gas station, lifted the hood and realized the car had overheated. It was fried. I was an hour-and-a-half from Mattoon. There was only one place to call. After smoking a pack of cigarettes and cursing God ... oh the fucking timing ... ďYeah, Dad? Itís Will ...Ē

He arrived two hours later, and, as Iíd feared, the car wasnít the only thing with steam coming out of it. We sat out in the cold for two hours, picking the car apart, putting this here, placing that there. At one point, the wrench my father was using slipped out of his hand and cut his left thumb. The blood oozed out meticulously, doing its best not to be noticed. The gash opened up further a few minutes later, and a large patch of skin was noticeably dangling perilously. Dad didnít pause in the slightest. He just kept working, as the oil and the grime and the soot mixed in, turning his thumb purple. He just kept working.

The car was continuing to leak, and it was obvious this problem would not be fixed tonight. Dad would have to take the next day off of work, just to help his failure son fix a goddamned car. We had an hour-and-a-half to drive home in his truck, just the two of us. We had yet to discuss, one on one, all the money I had borrowed just two days before. We both understood the ramifications of this drive. It could go one of two ways.

Dad walked inside the gas station and bought a six-pack of Natural Light. We hopped in the truck and were silent, motionless for about 15 minutes. He then handed me a beer. ďSo ... did you hear about the Cardinals thinking about trading Tatis?Ē And so it was done. We talked for the next hour about the Cardinals, the Rams, the Illini, my friend Tim, my girlfriend ... we were friends again. Dad knew - he could see it - how this situation had shaken me to my very foundation, and no matter how much he was questioning about his son, I was questioning more. He didnít yell, he didnít scold, he didnít even grimace. We just talked about what weíd always talked about, until I was ready, no longer too ashamed, to discuss the matter at hand.

ďDad ... I screwed up. Iím so sorry.Ē I told him how I felt what had happened over the last few months was in fact some sort of karmic punishment, my proper comeuppance for a summer where I was a financial and creative success, but a total asshole in life. I was so full of myself, invincible, that I stomped on everyone who even deigned for one second to care about me. I didnít know who was doing it, but some deity was mighty pissed about the way Iíd acted since I arrived in New York, and they made sure I would pay for it. ďYou know, Dad ... I really do think I had this coming.Ē

It was the most meaningful conversation Iíd ever had with my father. Not because of what was said, but what wasnít. For the first time since this whole mess had begun... he understood. I wasnít a fool and a deadbeat. I wasnít reckless. Iíd just fallen into a hole, and I didnít pull myself out of it, not in time. My father, a man of whom Iíd lived in fear for the first 18 years of my life, was fatherly. Somehow, listening to me, talking to me, actually hearing his son and hearing himself, it dawned on him ... Willís going to be OK. And for the first time in a long time, it dawned on me too.

The rest of my time in Mattoon was a joy. Any time the Illini played, I would head down to my fatherís new basement, his pride and joy, and we would watch the game, and drink beer, and high five, and scream at the TV. He would show off how many points heíd won on his video poker machine, and I would beam at his muffled excitement when he opened up my Christmas present to him, the Sopranos first season videocassettes, a gift I could not afford but bought anyway. For the first time, my father had become my best friend.

On New Yearís Eve, from the party I was at in Long Island, I called my father two hours before the ball dropped. He was at the neighborsí, one house over. Heíd brought the phone with him.

ďHappy New Year, Dad. You watching the game on Wednesday?Ē

ďYeah, of course. Barís open! You gotta come on by.Ē

Iíll never be able to spend a month and a half with my father again. Iíll never be able to just come on by. Iím back to my life now. But Iíll always have the last month and a half. If I never appreciated him before, I certainly do now. After all, no matter what happens, weíll always have the Illini, and the bar, and the video poker. If not each other.



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