Unplugged, p.1

Unplugged, page 1

 

Unplugged


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Unplugged
UNPLUGGED

  Michael Agelasto

  Copyright 2011 Michael Agelasto

  Chapter 1

  If you Google-map “tar heel state,” then click on “terrain,” and finally zoom in three times, you’ll find three cities – Chapel Hill, Durham and Raleigh – more or less placed centerstate North Carolina. All Carolina (forget the southern one!), like Caesar’s Gaul, is divided into three parts. In this Dixie state’s case the sections are, west to east, sloping down to the sea: Appalachian, Piedmont and coastal plain. The flat, lush rural expanse to the east is agricultural and consequently relatively poor; it is protected from the Atlantic Ocean by a chain of islands known as the Outer Banks. At the state’s other end the mountainous west is a geological component of southern Appalachia, leaving the middle section the Piedmont or “foot of the mountain.” This is where Googling lands you – an urbanized plateau, characterized by rolling hills, smallish sized cities and suburbs, much of its land formerly devoted to tobacco. This terrain was occupied for millennia by its aboriginal natives (their arrow heads can still be found in them thar hills), who co-existed with their hardwood forests, even grasslands and savannas that allowed for settlements and extensive agriculture. Five centuries of mostly European and African occupation, however, have resulted in today’s numerous central business districts, interstate highways, shopping malls, power lines and other vestiges of advanced, some would say failing, civilization.

  The center of the Piedmont is a triangle formed by the cities of Raleigh, the state capital, Chapel Hill, the seat of the University of North Carolina, and Durham. This last city is famous for several things, not the least of which is that it contains Bennett Place, where General Joseph E. Johnson of the Confederate States surrendered to General Tecumseh Sherman on April 26th 1865, thus in fact ending the conflict (Lee had surrendered to Grant two weeks earlier; Lincoln having been assassinated in the meantime). Older Durhamites still refer to that forgettable period as the War Between the States, never as the Civil War. Four years after the conflict had ended Durham, with a population of 200, was incorporated into a city. By 1895 it had become a bustling town of over 8,000 souls, thanks principally to one commodity: tobacco. Northern soldiers who had fought in the Piedmont during the war had been introduced to the local sweet leaf and afterwards as decommissioned warriors they helped spread the word; habit and addiction followed; Durham prospered. By 1920 the city was home to more than 20,000 inhabitants. Today, Durham claims a population of nearly one-quarter million people, and the tri-city area itself is seven times that. King Tobacco is less regal today than information technology and the overall service sector.

  The tri-city area is nicknamed The Triangle (as opposed to the Greensboro/Winston-Salem/High Point “Piedmont Triad” a bit further west). It owes this nickname to Research Triangle Park, four miles south of downtown Durham, or approximately at the circumcenter of the triangle formed by the three cities. Created in 1959, months after Sputnik had scarred (and scared) the nation into believing that our way of life was doomed if we couldn’t better the Soviets in science and technology, RTP now accommodates 39,000 employees working at 130 R&D units: the largest technology park in the USA. The Raleigh-Chapel Hill-Durham conglomeration, with its research and academic communities, is an intellectual happening place, in this regard like Cambridge (Massachusetts or England). Some say that kids in these types of places grow up quicker and wiser, or at least quicker. That is, of course, arguable; but most inhabitants would like to think of their locale as a hive of free thinking and creativity and that their children do seem to be brighter than those elsewhere. At least, that’s what some locals say.

  Downtown Durham has a plethora of government buildings and businesses and parking structures. It bustles during the day. At closing time the entire central business district, however, shuts down. At night there's almost no one to be seen. Very few restaurants cater to the dinner trade and there's almost no entertainment. The town's numerous parking structures remain vacant until commuters return in the morning. It wasn't always this way although tobacco warehouses have always outnumbered apartment buildings or hotels. Historic buildings do still exist, if only a small percent from the pre-Depression era. The Sterling Arms is one of 65 historically preserved sites in Durham County, all listed on The National Register of Historic Places. But except for good luck and obstinate Durhamites, this building also – and consequently its eponymous occupant – might not be alive today.

  The Sterling was saved in 1979 by citizens concerned that yet another distinguished structure would face the wrecking ball. Union Station and the Washington Duke Hotel had both recently met this fate. Today throughout downtown Durham vacant lots disguised as public parks sit waiting for a Godotish utopia, some grand urban renewal schema that envisions a revitalized central city with hundreds of condominiums and low rent apartments for the poor, theaters, university extensions, monorails and Babelic business towers. Modernists deemed and politicians concurred that the destruction of these dead and dormant buildings be in the public interest, a requisite stage toward elevating Durham, a stand-in for San Jose CA, into a Silicon Valley East (a misnomer as The Triangle doesn’t have rivers worth mentioning, but then neither does its South Bay counterpart). Opponents to these types of grandiose plans don’t want to see their fair city condominized.

  The Sterling is the sole survivor among Durham’s grand hotels. It no longer functions as a hotel, however, having been remodeled into a mixed-use building, with a boxing gym on the first floor, a residence on the second, and offices on the top five stories. Located in the former tobacco warehouse district, at the corner of Pedigrew and Blackwell, along the rail tracks, it’s an elderly brick structure – completed 1920 – whose immediate neighbors are a few weed-strewn vacant lots and a multi-story parking garage. Three hundred yards to the south lies the squattishly regal American Tobacco Company Manufacturing Plant, another registered structure; the Downtown Durham Historic District is directly to the south and the Bright Leaf Historic District is to the southeast.

  Over the past century and a half, Durham has seen many hotels come and go. The 1884 Branson business guide lists but two: the Grand Central and Durham House, along with three boarding houses. The city’s 1891 “bird’s-eye” map pictures a single hotel, the Claiborne (which the Wisconsin map-makers spell Claiborn) at the northeast corner of Corcoran and Peabody streets. It gave way to the Carrolina, erected in 1893 for $85,000, which initially contained 70 rooms. By 1906 this pun-name hotel could accommodate 350 guests, with rates of $2.50 and upward. The Carrolina, whose rooms were “handsomely frescoed by well known artists” displayed furnishings described as “elegant and expensive.” The main hall and office were in “French Rococo” in shades of salmon and blue. The gentlemen’s reading-room was decorated in Louis XV and the ladies’ reception room was in Empire style, in light blue and ivory. The main parlor, in Louis XVI style, ivory and gold, sported a ceiling in relief and fresco. Also in 1895 you could stay in Hotel Freemont or Hopkins House and in numerous boarding houses. In addition, the Biltmore could accommodate 50 “at table.” Durham’s score of tobacco warehouses were made of brick, but like most other structures at the time The Carrolina was wooden and when it burned in 1907, the city fathers mandated that future construction would be of brick. At that moment, however, the city found itself without what in today’s terminology might be considered a five-star hotel (Carolina stars if not international).

  The Sterling was conceived and executed at the end of Durham’s next hotel building boom (1908-1920), during which time hotels continued to appear and disappear. The Corcoran, on the corner of Corcoran and Chapel Hill streets, had been expanded and modernized, but in 1912 a group of investors bought it and remodeled it as Mercy H
ospital for contagious diseases. Following the 1918 flu pandemic it transmuted into the Durham School of Business, suggesting where the city set its priorities. Around the same time the Saint Helen Hotel became Hotel Murray, named after its investor E.H. Murray. Tobacconist E. J. Parrish, president of the local Chamber of Commerce, opened The Arcade Hotel in 1911, initially a modest operation that he tinkered with until it boasted 62 rooms and two dozen bathrooms. The following year rival tobacco tycoon Benjamin Newton Duke constructed The Malbourne (local matrons had objected to Taurus, its original name) whose 125 rooms with steam heat, telephones and hot and cold water, as well as 50 private bathrooms. With all its splendor, including ornamental iron balconies, it put the Arcade first to shame and then into new ownership and name change (The Lochmoor) and finally into bankruptcy. That was 1914. The Sterling arrived in 1920, completed by a supply of laborers fresh from the First World War. All the local celebrities, including the tobacco barons, attended The Sterling’s inauguration ball on May Day. The crowd was duly impressed, even more so when they surreptitiously learned (for money was too crass a subject for open discussion among the city elite) that construction and decoration costs had approached $100,000 (about $1.1 million today). By 1924 The Sterling suffered but two rivals: The Malbourne, at Roxboro & Main, and The Savoy Hotel, 108 S. Church St. As it aged The Sterling lost some of its splendor but remained a contender, as the years slowly discolored the paint and made bare the carpets. By the late nineteen seventies, although outlasting both the Savoy and the Malbourne, the Sterl (as it had affectionately become known) had morphed into a welfare hotel with a few rooms set aside for the needs of randy youth. When its surviving occupants were dumped into a public housing project, the Sterling was boarded up. The good citizens of Durham didn’t want it torn down, however, so a group of local businessmen, led by several Dukes, bought the structure for a dollar (the city agreed to forego real estate taxes for 25 years) and invested the several millions needed to bring the grande dame up to code. Its reduced rents attracted tenants.

  The Sterling is the neighborhood’s last-man-standing and commands its street corner, perhaps not such a difficult task: parking garage and vacant lots are the competition. Today, Saturday morning, it’s a hubbub of activity of the pre-teen sort. In this normally quiet, dormant zone – this part of downtown is quiet even on weekdays – The Sterling now generates sufficient decibels so that if there were any residents still alive none would still be asleep. The noise emanates from the mouths of a dozen boys and girls who are enrolled in “Entry Level Boxing – Course 1,” better known as pee-wee box, a community service provided by Vegas Gym. The whining, unordered refrain is a high-pitched “Coach U…Coach U…Coach U”, as the children nag and vie for the trainer’s attention. This is a youthful activity and the coach who is teaching them the “Noble Art of Self-Defence” (British term, British spelling) is a mere youth himself. Almost twice as high as his smallest protégé – the youngest of the three Hernández siblings – this boy/coach is tall for a high school junior, a few hairs over six feet, and weighs in at 160. These stats put him above average for his age, in both weight (55th percentile) and height (77th percentile), and because he’s lean, most people would describe him as thin, perhaps borderline skinny. He considers himself fat. He escapes to the back room on an errand.

  In general the boxing business has two shapes of people on offer: the short and dumpy – they’re called coaches – and the short and muscular – those who box. Look at the heights of some of the sport’s greatest: Roberto Duran 5’7”, Benny Leonard 5’5”, Sam Langford 5’6 ½”, Mickey Walker 5’7”, Joe Gans 5’6”, Henry Armstrong 5’5 ½”, Stanley Ketchel 5’9”, and Manny Pacquiao 5’ 6½”. Occasionally, tall champions have sprouted, like Jack Dempsey, 6’ ¾”, or Muhammad Ali, 6’ 3.” Most, but not all, of boxing’s giraffes were in the heavyweight divisions: For example, Sugar Ray Robinson (born Walker Smith, his nom-de-ring stolen from another kid’s amateur registration card), is the fighter many still believe, Pacquiao not aside, to be pound-for-pound the greatest ever. He stood just shy of six-foot. He had started, as all boxers do, at the lowest weight possible. In Ray’s case this was 126 pounds, as an amateur, when he won the New York Golden Gloves, at 18, a year older than The Sterling’s boy/coach. The following year Robinson won the title at 135 lbs, and then he turned pro. He was champion six times at welterweight (147 lbs) and eleven times at middleweight (160 lbs). Near the end of his extraordinary 25-year career Ray tipped the scales at 165, surely where the Sterling boy would be if he weren’t dieting.

  Sterling – for that is also young Coach U’s given name – is taking a five-minute respite from the rascals, crammed in the office-cum-storeroom, finishing off a protein drink in a final gulp. Fuck, I’m starved, rumbles among his thoughts as he jots down some notes for an essay he’s writing on Napoleon I for AP European History, the final hurdle before becoming a high school senior. These notes are not on paper. For some time Sterling has not deigned to touch pencil or pen (‘une technologie démodée’ he tells his friends, who have come to accept without criticism the arrogance that accompanies his spewing forth occasioned French). Rather he puts his notes into his personal digital assistant, the latest in a line whose ancestry stretches back to when he was six, the age of the littlest Hernández.

  The term PDA came into America’s vocabulary while Sterling was still in the womb, when the Apple Newton was born to the awe of the crowds of techno geeks at their annual convention in Las Vegas. Sterling himself had to wait until he was seven before he wangled a PDA out of his parents. His argument was rational and simple: that by withholding technology from their only son his parents were stunting his intellectual growth; they were in denial that, as his school counselors had said, he was a genius; and they knew he was smarter than they (he had overheard them joke about this once and, unprompted, would occasionally repeat back to them their regrettable conversation word-for-word) and they were jealous. He had been lectured on the evils of jealousy and he quoted their own words again against them. They had power over him, that he conceded, but he wanted them to agree that they were abusing this power, that their decision was grossly unfair. Sterling was prepared to go off on a tangent about unfairness (another memorizable, unforgettable, and consequently repeatable lecture), about Negroes in the Old South, but mom and dad cut him short and said (this was his mother’s bright idea) that they would get him the PDA (“Just stop your nonsense”). But if he couldn’t figure out how to use it within a week, they would keep it for themselves. Sterling successfully called her bluff, figuring out the contraption during the car ride home, before he even had time to attack the directions – at six he could read some techno-babble but the completely confusing syntax, run-on sentences and incomprehensible instructions always baffled him. (With time he learned this was not really his fault; hence instructions – at least those in multiple languages in little booklets – became optional for most of his life.)

  The device that claimed Sterling’s techno virginity was Apple’s MessagePad 2100, which the boy had wanted since he had learned about its release on the web in November 1997. Rumor has it – a rumor at daycare – that the first “apple” Sterling vocalized referred not to a piece of fruit but rather to the center’s Mac. In any case, Sterling loved his current PDA, an Apple iPhone 3G. He and iPhone had a history. Having waited impatiently since its unveiling in January 2007, he had fought the crowds to buy its debut edition when it finally came on sale June 29th 2007. A year later he had traded up to a 3G; he was now waiting for a 3GS, due out this summer. Given all his hints, it would certainly arrive as a birthday present from his folks or grandfolks. The thought of a new iPhone was arousing. In fact Sterling had a theory – he had a theory about a lot of things – that holding the iPhone was a very good substitute for holding one’s other thing; granted the former was shorter (4.5 in, but small is good for hand-helds) and heavier (4.8 oz), but it had a lot more useful fun
ctions and time-wise (5 hours of continuous activity, a whopping 300 hours on standby); there was simply no comparison. The iPhone wins over sex hands down.

  Life is good for Sterling. He lives a life of freedom: independent from parents, teachers, shrinks, priests and any others who might try to exert some control. Colleges want him; girls want him; many parents would want to trade in their own sons for him. And right now little tykes want him, so he grabs a carton and returns to what has degenerated into little more than a free-for-all. All the children wear mandatory headgear; they are not supposed to be fighting one another except under Sterling’s supervision. Now was supposed to be the time for drills and training exercises; but kids, no less than adults, don’t like drills and exercises and the hard stuff. They’d much prefer jumping into the real thing, in this case knocking the shit out of somebody. To prevent that from happening is Sterling’s major task for the morning. Handing over bleeding-nosed tots to their parents is not on his agenda.

  He blows his whistle. “Listen up. Listen up.” No response. He inhales deeply, blows again and continues until the last child has been silenced.

  “Discipline and focus. That’s our lesson for today. Now, last week, what did we talk about?”

  Blank stares. Like he speaks an alien tongue. He repeats himself in Spanish. Still no response. As a last resort he turns to the oldest girl – he knows that girls are so much better pupils than boys. She’s attractive, ebony, with long pig tails. “Goal” she responds, not having to dig deep for the answer. This girl is not timid; but she’s not about to be a first responder like the show-off boys. No, she’d rather force Sterling to acknowledge her directly. In twenty years’ time she’ll be making men’s lives living hells.

  “Excellent, Latisha. What’s your goal?”

  But before she can offer a response, one that Latisha’s prepared all week for, the little Hernández blurts out: “To beat up my big brother.”

  “Hey, remember, boxing is not about anger. It’s about skill, strategy, doing your best…bla…bla…bla. We talked about that crap,” Sterling chides.

  “To defend against the bully,” another suggests.

  Sterling nods approvingly. “Defense is good. Bullies are bad.” He turns back to Latisha: “Yours?”

  She rattles off her statement: “You gonna finish grade school, then middle school, then high school and not get pregnant along the way and then go to community college and transfer to a four-year program on a scholarship.”

  Sterling nods his approval as the others fidget. “Can’t we box?” “Where are the gloves” “This is boring fuck” are among the few disapproving comments he ignores.

  Sterling heads over to the carton marked in stencil: “GIFT FROM PIEDMONT P.A.L.” He grabs a handful of cloth strips, of various colors, that resemble elastic ACE bandages. These are boxing handwraps.

  “First thing, you’re big boys and girls. You gotta learn to dress yourselves. Like a boxer. You’re no street punks. Look and pay close attention. I’m gonna put on this handwrap,” repeating the word very slowly and spelling it several times: h-a-n-d-w-r-a-p. “First thing you do when you get to the gym. Every time, no exceptions. There will be no broken fingers in Vegas gym. Do you understand? If you break a finger you will never be allowed into this gym. And I will make sure no other gym, anywhere, will ever let you in. Do you understand?” Sterling, voice raised and serious, has made his point.

  He turns to a blond boy; northern Europe’s sole representative. “What do you do the minute you step into a gym?”

  “Hanvap.” Some sort of Russian accent, parents academic mafia, Sterling figures.

  He goes around until each pupil has said the holy word. He passes out the strips:

  “Now, wrap you hands.”

  Not paying attention to the kids, he wraps his own hands, one by one, with his personal wraps, which are twice as long as the ones given the children. It takes about seven seconds apiece. He picks up a jump rope and starts jumping. A show-off skill, to be sure. A minute later, he turns back to the group:

  “You’ll finished and ready to box?”

  Not exactly. The room looks more like trees, toilet paper and Halloween eve. He grabs the closest kid.

  “I will teach you your first boxing skill.” He explains how to wrap, step by step:

  “You’ll catch on in a few weeks. Tight but not too tight. Don’t cut off circulation. Start by putting your thumb through the loop. Then down to the wrist, two times around, then up to the fingers – protect the knuckles – twice around, then the wrist again, then under and around the thumb, between the fingers, then back to the wrist and around until you run out of wrap and Velcro it secure. Anyone who can do it, show me. Otherwise, I’ll do you each.”

  One by one Sterling wraps their tiny hands, rapidly, not impatiently but not so patiently either. The middle Hernández approaches self-wrapped, which Sterling inspects. Clearly he’s the brightest kid in the group, and thus Sterling’s favorite.

  “Wiggle your fingers. OK the right’s OK. The left is too loose. You’re a southpaw, right?” The kid nods and rewraps the left. Sterling continues:

  “Listen a second. You’re the only left-hander and all the rest are right-handers. When I give instructions, I’m talking to them. You do just the opposite. When I say right foot, you hear me say left foot. Right hand, left hand. You’ll be the mirror image. Sometimes if you get confused, just look in the mirror.” One entire wall of the gym is mirrors. “Oh, and tell your partner, too,” he adds.

  The kids are impatient: “We ready to box yet?”

  “No, you’re almost ready to train. You just don’t jump in the ring and start sparring. We got exercises, we got foreplay. It’s just like…you’re too young for that.”

  He notices he’s loosing their enthusiasm. “And we’ll learn all those exercises and training techniques, one by one. And when you’re a few years older, maybe you can walk in and go directly into the ring.” Great disappointment. Their goal, the ring, which occupies a full half of the facility is so close but so far away.

  “This time, we’ll pair off and use the mitts. Half of you with gloves, half with mitts.” Dumping the rest of the carton onto the floor, there’s a scramble. No one wants mitts.

  “To start, those with even numbers, get the mitts. We’ll trade off half way. Help each other put on the gloves.” The numbers, unfortunately, are on the back of the jerseys (“Police are our P.A.L.s”), but the kids soon figure out who gets mitts and who gets gloves, and manage to get them on, thanks to Velcro.

  “Pair off by height. Tall with tall. Short with short. Boys with girls, that’s OK.”

  They pair off except for the tallest boy and the tallest girl, Latisha. The boy has on the gloves; they hang like lead weights along his sides.

  “Problem?” asks Sterling.

  The boy doesn’t budge. “He won’t fight me,” Latisha explains.

  “We don’t fight. We box. Anyway, we’re doing drills.”

  “His momma won’t let him hit girls,” Latisha explains.

  “Thank you, Latisha. I’ll take it from here. Bobby Joe, is that what your momma says?”

  “Man not supposed to strike a woman; boy not supposed to beat up on a girl. She says she knows first hand. And if I ever strike a girl, momma’s gonna whoop my littl’ hillbilly ass ’til it’s the color of a cock’s comb.”

  “And your mother is one-hundred percent correct. And I will not have you boxing in the ring with any girl. Maybe you can get your momma on the phone and I’ll talk with her to see if training with a girl is OK” He hands the boy his 3G, which produces just a blank expression. “Can you call her?”

  “No, sir. She ain’t got one of them.”

  “Where is she now? Must be downtown. She picks you up.”

  “At the Wash ’n Dry.”

  With a few clicks, Sterling finds the number, but has to turn his a
ttention back to the pupils.

  “Practice getting arm’s length away from your partner, and standing dead still, making no noise. This is very important drill to teach discipline and focus.”

  He hands the phone to Bobby Joe who, though treating the 3G reverentially as an alien device, has seen enough TV to know how to work it. He connects with his mother and hands the phone back to Sterling, who has a 30 second talk with her after which he turns back to the tall pair.

  “It’s OK. She won’t whoop you.”

  He blows his whistle.

  “Now, we have rules here. If you with the gloves touch any part of your opponent EXCEPT the mitts, you will be disqualified and have sit in the corner and watch. There is to be no body contact: glove to mitt, glove to mitt. This requires DISCIPLINE. This requires FOCUS.”

  He gets down on his knees (protected by pads) and kneels erect. He places Bobby Joe in front of him, left leg forward.

  “Find the right distance between the two of you. Then the boxer is to throw a jab, the most important punch in boxing. Throw straight forward, straight back. It’s a simple punch: one…back, two…back, three…back. I want rhythm.”

  He repositions Bobby Joe and says:

  “Left leg forward.”

  Bobby Jo throws a left jab into the mitt. “Good. Now rotate your hip when you throw the punch; don’t just use your triceps. Use the shoulder.”

  Sterling works the room, correcting stances, disqualifying those who land punches outside the mitt. He breaks up one fight that erupts after one boy’s punch lands on another boy’s chest. Both are sent to the wall. All the pairs exchange mitts and gloves. And by the time all this is done, ninety minutes are up. The final chore is to write each kid’s name on the wrist-wrap. For some of the tots it might be the first time a non-family member has ever given them something they can call their own. Sterling feels that it’s important for each child to be a stakeholder in this enterprise (he read an article once on the importance of stakeholding); that’s why each kid must pay $1 per session. Sterling writes the names of the youngest on their wraps; the older are allowed to write their own names, but Sterling cautions them:

  “This is indelible ink. Do not, I repeat, DO NOT get it on your skin.” The boy knows what he’s talking about.

  “These are yours to keep. You better leave your wrap with me if you have brothers and sisters who are going to steal them. For those of you who want to take it home, don’t forget to bring it next time. If you forget, you’ll sit and watch all the others have fun.” Some of the children follow the Hernández brothers, who have knotted their wraps into a single string, which they deposit in the carton. Latisha prances out the door, her wrap an improvised prayer shawl.

  His job done, Sterling leaves as some not so desperate housewives enter, all broad smiles aimed at the teenager, as if they were closely acquainted with him. Sterling would rather spend the rest of the morning here, with or without these cougars, but the gym must be turned over to the day’s renters: Junior League aerobics club, the under-16 kick-boxers, capoeira, taekwondo classes, etc. Thus the young coach is through for the moment; he’ll return in the evening for his own training. For now, it’s another dollar in the bank. Except that Sterling earns no salary. The accumulated entry fees – a whopping twelve bucks today – inevitably return to the students in the form of gifts (handwraps don’t grow on trees). Moreover, he has been told by his father that he is the gym’s co-owner. The concept of stakeholder works both ways, it seems. He puts in equity, sweat equity, he’s been told. Sterling questions the economics of this proposition, but to argue would likely produce a fight he cares not to pick with his ol’ man, for his dad, Pandely Eumorfopoulos – Pan U for short – carries the strap in the family. You don’t argue with the strap.

  Later upstairs Sterling Eumorfopoulos palm wipes the steamy mirror so he can examine himself. His hair is a mess; it’s always a mess. With his webbed fingers he combs it from the sideburns to the top, into a Hoxton Fin or fauxhawk, where the hair down the center of the head is longer than the hair on the sides – the modernized TinTin style that twenty-somethings in soap operas have taken a fancy to (he knows this from the blogs of his girl classmates who track the soaps, or rather the soapy actors). It can dry by itself. He studies the rest of his stature. Sure, tall, dark and handsome. Topped by a face that could sell men’s perfume (because women buy for it for men; he prefers not to believe men might buy it based on his face). Sure, a body chiseled in all the right places. Sure, sufficiently junk-endowed below the belt to be a great land in any woman’s sack, he’s certain of that. And just as surely he knows that he lugs around an undesirable, but perfectly hidden, 10 pounds. A massive 10 pounds. He just can’t figure out where the fuckin’ pounds hide themselves. He peruses his backside. Surely not in the ass, one of his best assets. Sterl doesn’t care to look too closely, though. So it’s just as well that the bathroom is so dark. He opens the blinds only slightly, peeks out to see if the coast is clear and then opens them full. Once, after class, drying from a shower, without much thought about being hormonally agitated – “it happens when it happens,” a teenage fate generally agreed by his boyhood mates to occur almost at random – he had looked out the unshaded window to find the entire aerobics club gawking back, a sort of ocular rape. Not really embarrassed, being admired not really an unpleasant feeling, but apparently quite improper by somebody’s social code and not a visual that needed to drift back to the folks. He was more perturbed than angry. Couldn’t the horny mothers just stream a video, he thought. From that day forward the blinds are drawn.

  Except for the occasional moan and groan from the ladies downstairs, home is quiet. His mom is sleeping off the night shift and his dad has taken the cruiser down to Fort Bragg for the day. All is well in Sterling-land. So it is now or never to get some work done.

  A beep indicates incoming text. Without bothering to look Sterling reaches over, fumbles and switches over to mute and voice-mail. Networking can wait. The pee-wee coach-turned-academic is hard at work, sprawled out on his queen bed, propped up by pillows with his Dell laptop supported by his knees. He wears baby blue UNC sweats, the type of gift you wouldn’t leave home in (if you did you’d better go straight to the local tubs to feel at ease). Sterl is in editing mode, scrolling through, making sure his Napoleon Premier paper is all it can be. He likes the Dell for scrolling. His desk, cluttered with various electronics, is dominated by his main unit, a 24-inch LCD, 1TB, iMac, with 10.5 OS X, and about due for upgrade. This is where he usually works, except when he is in editing mode.

  As always Sterling is tied to a schedule. Whether training, eating, studying, everything – well, not sex, that would certainly be unscheduled – his life is very ordered with a calendar app as exhibit one. His plate is especially full for the rest of the day. He wants to bike over to school to toss with the ultimate crowd. And he’ll take his stick in case the lacrosse team is working out. But first he absolutely has to finish Napoleon. He has promised to email it to the junior so he could turn it in Monday. An hour on-line has proven sufficient to get all the footnotes together. He must have it finished before Sara returns. Ever since she has moved in – actually, down the hall in his apartment over the gym shared by his parents, that is – his quality of life has raised discernibly. But these days are also producing fewer hours, what with her pilfering his time, a few minutes here, a few minutes there, her forever wanting to get his head of hair in order. Not that he greatly objects. He likes the attention. He likes Sara. He likes her a lot. He has nagging suspicions that the l-word is involved. Love or lust, either applies. Obviously she feels the same, for she has convinced her parents to let her move to town – in his home – during the entire summer. His own parents have no objection. They miss the female touch (the extent of his mother’s cooking is the frozen-to-microwave routine). Sara is an independent, intelligent woman who has all her mom’s and grandmom
s homemaking skills. Sara can cook like a pro. Just what his own mother lacks. In exchange for chores, Sara will live with them all summer, with escapes home on Sundays for 11 o’clock service. But that is the future; for now Sterling is concentrating on the paper’s conclusion. That’s where he’s directs his hormones. He doesn’t think he is finishing strong enough. Better to be strong and wrong than weak and right, Sterling figures. He has never heard that said. He Googles. A quote from Bill Clinton two years earlier. He loves the quote, doesn’t think much of its source. Especially he hates having to quote a Democrat; why can’t the Republicans say smart things. Sterling’s original idea has been stolen, granted, even if thieved before he had it. Sterling is not pleased that he cannot be credited with inventing the quote. But, still, he has some new footnote material and a god-for-fuckin’ strong and right conclusion. Just brilliant. Sterling’s intelligence never ceases to amaze him. He quickly word-processes this into Napoleon, arguing that the French followed Bonaparte (like the left blindly follows Bono, something he decides against including, the reader most likely being a knee-jerk) not because he was right but because he was strong (read rich and powerful). Whether the rest of Europe liked him or not was irrelevant; they were weak, that’s all that counted. The argument sort of falls apart when it applies to Hitler, “Hitler exceptionalism,” to coin a phrase. Sterling wonders; an almost original expression; Googling comes back with only two hits; definitely worth a follow-up paper, Sterling reasons. For now leave the reader wanting more. Nothing wrong with cop-outs.

  That, however, forces the young (time-pressed) scholar into more thinking and he realizes the inevitable: that he needs to work this some more. In the best of all worlds – one at the moment in which the teenager had nothing to do but write this fuckin’ paper – he’d spend a few days working out this argument, accumulating flashes of insight on his PDA throughout the day and then massaging them into place during the evening. Over time he’d subconsciously process the data and, voilà, the paper would have written itself. But this requires time. No time for in-depth research, however, on today’s full plate. Even so, Sterling commits the next two hours to hunting down on-line academic studies (thanks to his school he has free remote access to ProQuest and LexisNexis) that empower his thesis with some theoretical punch. It helps that his broadband speed of 4Mb is sufficient; that he can read about as fast as he can scroll; and that note-taking is unnecessary because of his glitch-free memory. Never mind he doesn’t have the time to go to original sources; finding academic tomes requires a trip to the library, that god-forsaken smelly building, the entirety of which should be digitized. In fact Google was now working toward that effort, yet not quickly enough for Sterling. Academic abstracts and the few passages he can glean from Amazon and Google text searches would have to suffice. Reading five or ten pages in a text search or abstract isn’t the same as reading the entire book, granted, but it’s better than nothing, right? Anyway, this is a history paper and Sterling suspects the reader/historian won’t be all that informed in the field of political theory where most of his quotes seem to come from. Besides, he is just a high school junior (almost senior) so expectations should be appropriately lowered. He isn’t working on a fuckin’ Ph.D. It was his choice not to enter UNC at 15. No one forced him not to.

  Despite what television suggests it’s not just valley or gossip girls that have BFFs. American boys do also. Sterling hears the doorbell; he is busy typing so he doesn’t move. BFFs know whether their friend’s doors are unlocked and when it’s appropriate to enter. Ringing the doorbell is a mere courtesy, a warning in case Sterling would be doing something in private that he should immediately stop doing before Billy W. N. (for Washington Newton) Duke appears at the threshold of the bedroom door. Sterling continues to type to the end of the paragraph without looking up.

  “Good timing. Finished.”

  Billy is Sterling’s age but a few inches shorter, preppily attired in a weekend mode, that shows as much style as it does wealth. He is slender but his most noticeable feature is a set of golden curls, center parted, well behaved atop a head that is a bit too big for his thin neck. The hair, however, some girls would sell their souls for. Billy swishes into the room and flops on the bed.

  “Your blog’s been dark. You’re still on Napoleon?”

  “Not any more. Finished. This is an A for sure, an A+ if the professor is in a good mood and a B+ only if by mistake he shoved his marking pen up his ass.”

  Billy knows exactly when to take Sterling seriously and pay attention and when to just ignore him because, well, he is just being Sterling, which would be refreshing if he were, like, a 12-year-old. Sometimes Sterling is mature and other times he isn’t. With Billy he almost always seems like a 12-year-old, although often a mature 12-year-old.

  “For Harvard and you?”

  “Yeah, a two-in-one,” Sterling replies.

  Billy gives a disapproving grunt.

  “It’s for a good cause. Redistribution of wealth. So don’t lecture me, Billy. Not fuckin’ today.”

  “Not a word,” Billy replies, zippers his lips, locks them and tosses away the key.

  His disapproval, however, needs not be spoken. Billy’s lecture is well-prepared, and Sterling knows it is. Billy understands why Sterling is taking his AP History term paper more seriously than usual. Most school chores that don’t require creativity he calls “pissant Harry high school make-work shit.” He understands also that pee-wee boxing needs cash. He understands that the Harvard junior who Sterling has bargained with on-line is going to receive an electronic copy of Napoleon Premier. He understands that the junior will undoubtedly remit some money into Sterling’s Pay Pal account. He understands that the funds will go to kiddy boxing and that this “redistribution of wealth” will benefit his friend not one iota. And finally he understands that Sterling knows this is wrong – not a sin in the lynching category but then not just a speeding ticket either, more like drunken driving where you kill someone’s dog, make that an old, blind and lame dog – but he is doing it anyway. Ends justify means; they’ve had this discussion. There is something Billy does not understand: why take the risk? Billy, himself, has solved Sterling’s problem. That’s what he is about to tell him so he won’t go and do something stupid.

  “Hey, before you go and do something stupid, I talked to William Sr. about your insurance worries.”

  “Mother’s insurance worries.”

  “So my father called his broker – you know all told Senior’s annual premiums are in the hundreds of thousands. So the broker is willing to give you, as a special friend of my father’s third-in-line son’s best friend forever, a special deal. One-hundred-and-twenty-five dollars.”

  Sterling smiles, “Not bad. I’ll have money left over from Harvard.”

  “That’s $125 per pee-wee,” Billy explains. “They especially don’t like the fact you, yourself, are a minor.”

  Sterling sighs. The world’s one screwed-up place. At 17, which he’ll be in a matter of hours, he can enlist in the Army, get married, be executed for a crime he didn’t commit and do just about anything but coach the pee-wees. And vote, which doesn’t interest him because the whole system is too corrupt to take part in. His face says it: he’s lost his coaching job.

  “I can’t afford that, Billy. You know that. Even you don’t have $1,500 in pocket change. And don’t offer to give it to me.”

  Ignoring him, Billy continues:

  “So William Sr. says to me,” as he lowers his voice an octave:

  ‘Son, I have a better idea. Why does he need insurance? If something catastrophic happens, The Sterling is well insured. I’m an investor, I made sure of that. You need insurance because, what if the welfare mom of one of these children envisions a big payout for some minor annoyance like a broken arm. She gets herself lawyered-up, that’s what you don’t want to see happen. You prevent that, not by insurance, but by subtle persuasion
.’”

  Billy holds out a key ring, a finger banana, about 2 ½ inches long. If it weren’t Dayglow pink, it might seem edible. Sterling takes it, jerks it apart and inserts one end into a USB port on his Dell. He examines what appears on the screen.

  “A release form. Sure. Why didn’t I think of that!” Sterling admonishes himself.

  “Because you’re not enough of a cunning bastard. If you were more of a skunk you’d know that subtle persuasion means intimidation. You, Sterl, don’t have a legacy of six generations of slave-beating ancestors who hardly noticed the Civil War – so busy profiteering, selling cotton to both sides – and the next six generations peddle coffin sticks to kids like your pee-wees. It’s not you who should have thought of it. It’s me. Senior is ashamed of my morality. I’m the thirteenth generation. I should inherit duplicity, deception…”

  “…deceit, dishonesty, treachery, fraudulence,” Sterling mutters as he works on the iMac. He merges the parents’ names into the release form template and prints out the individualized release forms.

  “My dad really likes you Sterling. I think the only reason he accepts me for who I am is that he sees you in the picture.”

  As the HP continues printing, Sterling walks over to Billy, who gets off the bed. The boys face each other, the entire verticality of their bodies less than an inch apart. Sterling runs his hands through Billy’s curls, then lays his hands gently on his shoulders and says, seriously: “I owe you big, buddy.” Then he kisses him on the middle of the forehead, a gesture more satirical than affectionate. “You tell Senior: if he wants to fork over ten million as a dowry, I’m all yours. Make it fifteen and I’ll even go bottom.”

  Billy shakes his head. “You’re are so cruel, Sterl. So, so, very, very cruel.” When they stop laughing, he adds: “So you can forget about Harvard? You don’t need the money now.”

  Sterling, rather than responding, preoccupies himself with his text messages, and talks simultaneously with Billy, who by habit checks his email, too.

  “So when’s my party? People are texting me for a time. Didn’t you give them a time?

  “Early evening. Your mother told me to get you out of here for the afternoon. Hey, it’s supposed to be a surprise. You’re not in the loop.”

  Sterling grabs Billy’s Blackberry to examine the guest list. He mutters approvals until he comes to an email address.

  “Billy, you are not inviting the Trips! They’re not even in my fuckin’ address book. I thought you defriended them.” He deletes them from Billy’s facebook as Billy grabs back his phone to undo the erase.

  “Don’t go postal, bro. I’m just the messenger. You got issues; take ’em up with your mother. She specifically told me to email Jake-Connor-Zack.”

  “Sometimes that woman tries her fuckin’ best to make my life miserable. Anyway, they won’t come,” Sterling shrugs. “Our dislikes are mutual.”

  “And don’t you go tell your mother you know about the surprise party, Sterl, or she’ll blame me. It’s good to have me on her good side.”

  “Yeah, yeah, yeah. What kind of car do you think I’ll get?”

  “Let’s see. If it’s up to your dad, something new, very hot, maybe in red, probably convertible. Stick shift. With sex written all over it, maybe he’ll throw in a hooker from lock-up. Something he’d like to rev up so he can live your life for you. On the other hand, if it’s your mother’s decision, something old, boxy and busted up, tea party matrons with oxygen tanks in the back seat. 1984 Honda Civic, on its fourth odometer and fifth transmission.”

  “Something even Craig won’t list.”

  “They’ll probably let you decide yourself. That’s what they usually do. You got the best parent gig I know, bro. Two opposites who never argue but let their little prince populate his kingdom with all the toys he wants.”

  Billy refers to the electronics that clutter Sterling’s desk. All the usual suspects plus much more. Always the fastest, smallest, latest. This criticism rolls off Sterling’s back like water off a Mallard. He knows it’s all true and he couldn’t care less.

  Billy continues to whine: “If I want a simple upgrade, fifty bucks or something, I have to go through at least two secretaries to talk with Senior or his wife to get their consent; I need their both. And she’s no pushover, like the last one, trying to keep every last dime in his estate, and he’s not even dead.”

  “What’s her name? It’s hard to keep them straight. She’s the twenty-something with big boobs, right?”

  “And I don’t call her Mommy, cause that would imply she had me when she was like thirteen. Even illegal in this state.”

  They chat awhile about which of their friends have the most imperfect parents. Most anyone would agree Sterling has a great set-up, parents wrapped around his baby finger.

 
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