“You really think so?” asked Janine. She was still in the kitchen, around the corner where Blaine couldn’t see her. He didn’t answer. Blaine had cut the side of his hand while helping Janine cut celery for a vegetable tray that would probably go untouched considering most of the guests at the party were between 16 and 18 years old. The hamburgers that Theo was grilling in the back yard, however, were disappearing as fast as he could cook them.
The only band-aids in the medicine cabinet were huge. Blaine was not going to put a huge band-aid on such a tiny cut. He ran the cut under the faucet for a few seconds and returned to the kitchen.
Janine, lean and dark in a fuchsia sundress, was still cutting vegetables. Her dyed-red hair was in a long ponytail. Her knife clicked rapid-fire against the cutting board. Blaine had been against the vegetable tray from the beginning, but after his brief trip to the bathroom, the stack of celery sticks on the counter looked outright absurd. And it was still growing.
Janine glanced at Blaine as she reached for another celery stalk. “Where’s the band-aid?”
“All we have are big ones,” said Blaine. “If I use one of those it’s gonna look like its holding my hand together. Why do we even have band-aids that big? If your injury’s that big, you should be in the ER.”
“I’m not going to have you help me if you’re going to bleed on the veggies,” said Janine.
“Well, the band-aids are too big.”
Janine looked at Blaine for a moment. Blaine sensed that she was searching his face for signs of rebellion or petulance, so he smiled to throw her off the trail.
“See how we’re doing on drinks,” said Janine, going back to the celery.
“I will,” said Blaine. “If I don’t come back in for a while, that means we’re doing fine on drinks.”
In the back yard, Nolan and his friends stood talking and laughing on the cement slab under the basketball hoop. Blaine estimated that there were around twelve of them, although they moved around so much that it was hard to tell. He’d asked Nolan how many friends he expected to attend the party, but Nolan had refused to answer out of either ignorance or spite, the two driving forces for most of his life. Blaine had known going in that being a step-father was going to be tough, but come on.
Nolan had been fourteen when Blaine and Janine got married. He hadn’t been very hostile at first, but as he made his way through high school, emerged as a star on the basketball team, started breaking school records, and turned into a local celebrity, he got progressively more antagonistic towards everyone, especially Blaine. It didn’t help matters that most of the records Nolan had broken or was on the verge of breaking were Blaine’s. Nolan automatically assumed that every time Blaine came to him with an issue, it was somehow rooted in the fact that Blaine resented Nolan for breaking his records.
Theo, Janine’s first husband and Nolan’s biological father, was the only other adult in the back yard. He was standing over the grill on the patio wearing a red wind suit and a fishing hat. His black and silver beard had probably been trimmed as recently as two hours ago.
“People are raving about the burgers,” said Blaine, strolling over to Theo with his hands in the pockets of his khaki shorts.
Theo looked up and nodded a greeting. “They’re not raving. But they are coming back for more and that’s the best review you can get.”
“That’s true,” said Blaine. “Janine sent me out here to check on the drink situation.”
“I think it’s fine,” said Theo, gesturing at the big, blue cooler on the patio next to the grill. “Last time I checked there were plenty of cans left. But you can check again if you want.”
“Nah,” said Blaine. “I trust you.” His stomach growled. The burgers did smell incredible. Blaine could hear them sizzling inside the grill. “I wish I knew how to grill,” he said, leaning against the folding table on which Janine had arrayed the paper plates, utensils, and bags of chips.
“It’s a good skill,” said Theo. “But if you learn how to grill, what am I going to contribute?” His grin was off just like everything else about him. Blaine liked Theo well enough, but he was a hard man to pin down. The big story everyone knew from the period when Theo was married to Janine was the time the house caught fire and Theo evacuated to the yard naked and then refused to cover up, even after the blaze was well under control. The cops offered Theo a blanket, neighbors offered him clothes, Janine pleaded with him, but he couldn’t be moved and eventually came to blows with a volunteer fireman. He even won the fight, according to eyewitnesses, although most believed it was because the volunteer fireman was bothered by the fact that Theo was naked and therefore couldn’t fully commit to his attacks. Janine maintained that the house fire incident had had no direct bearing on her decision to divorce Theo. But the reasons she gave were vague and unmemorable, so most people preferred to believe that the house fire incident was, if not the only reason for the divorce, certainly the last straw.
“I’m just gonna hang around until the burgers are ready,” said Blaine. “I want to make sure I’m first in line for this batch.”
“Sure,” said Theo. He tapped his tongs against the side of the grill. The grill was Blaine and Janine’s, but Theo had brought his own tongs with him.
“How often do you check on the burgers to see if they’re ready?” asked Blaine.
“Never,” said Theo. “After I close the grill, I don’t open it again ‘til they’re done.”
“Oh,” said Blaine. He walked over to the cooler and pulled out an icy-cold can of root beer. The cooler wasn’t as well-stocked as Blaine felt Theo had led him to believe, but he didn’t feel like reporting back to Janine yet.
“Nolan!” The shout was shrill and full of outrage.
Blaine and Theo looked over to the kids under the basketball hoop. Nolan was laughing and turning away from the open-palmed blows of a short, wispy girl who seemed sincerely upset. The other kids were laughing except for a few of the girls whose faces were fixed with the strange half-smiles of people who aren’t sure how to feel. Nolan had grown another inch in the last few months. Now 6’3”, he could look Blaine right in the eye. His body was gangly but wiry-strong and he’d had the barber shave some kind of spiral design into the back of his light, close-cropped hair. Blaine didn’t know if the hair-design was bad taste or a primitive stab at irony. There was no way to find out.
“You think he’s a bad kid,” said Theo, his gaze still fixed on Nolan, who had now grabbed the angry girl by both wrists and was holding her at arms’ length while she tried to kick his shins.
Blaine shrugged. “I guess that depends what you mean. We don’t get along and I think there are definite behavioral issues, but I’m not alone in that opinion.”
“It’s weird,” said Theo. “Because I think he’s more like you than he is like me. And I’m his real father. You two don’t get along because you’re too much alike.”
Janine often said the same thing. Blaine thought it was a trite and boring thing to say. It seemed like a cheap way of saying that no one was at fault. Blaine was willing to accept his share of the blame, but the actual size of that share was the kind of thing that needed to be decided on a case by case basis, and if someone were to actually undertake such a study, Blaine was pretty sure they’d find out that most of the conflicts stemmed from the fact that Nolan was, well, yes, a bad kid.
“You just say we’re more alike ‘cause I played ball and you didn’t,” said Blaine.
“Sure, that’s part of it,” said Theo. “But the way he carries himself too. The girls he pulls. The way he looks at people.”
“You’re kidding,” said Blaine. “You hardly knew me when I was his age. You didn’t even go to our school after your sophomore year.”
“All right,” said Theo. “You can deny it all you want. But I see it.”
“Listen,” said Blaine. “Everyone likes to play counselor and come up with all these fancy reasons for why Nolan and I don’t get along. It’s not that complicated. He acts like a jerk and I call him on it. I know a lot of kids act like jerks. I know that’s part of raising kids. But that’s why a lot of parents fight with their kids. There’s nothing exceptional going on here. Do I always handle myself well? No. But that’s because it makes me mad when he acts like a jerk.”
Theo considered Blaine for a moment and then nodded once. “This is about the records, isn’t it? Nolan already took down all your single game records as a junior, and now he’s going to be a senior and he’s coming for your career records. It’s just a matter of time before they’re all his. That makes you feel threatened.”
“Theo,” said Blaine. “I do not care about those records. I’m 41 years old. My high school basketball records mean nothing to me. I didn’t care that much about them even back then. I just wanted to win.”
Theo smiled. “You have to say that. You have to take the high road. But I know it hurts. I don’t want to sound too melodramatic, but you replaced me as a husband, as a father-”
Blaine interrupted Theo with a laugh. “Theo. Come on. There’s no comparison.”
“And look how well I’m handling it,” said Theo, opening his arms wide, a man with nothing to hide, a man who couldn’t be more confident in his ability to pass an inspection.
Blaine shook his head. He looked over at Nolan again. Nolan had one arm slung around the shoulder of the girl who’d been trying to strike him. The girl was beaming, gazing up at Nolan with something approaching complete devotion as she leaned against him. Blaine wasn’t surprised.
“See?” said Theo, aiming his tongs at his son. “He’s all right.”
Blaine shrugged. “Maybe someday.”
Theo started to respond but stopped short, his eyes narrowing, and then turned to the grill and opened it in a white puff of smoke. “They’re done,” he said, and he picked up a plate and began to load it up with the burgers, thick, brown, and juicy. “Hurry up and get yours,” said Theo. “As soon as those kids realize this round is done, they’re gonna descend on us like locusts.”
It wasn’t an uncommon saying, but in that moment, as Blaine squirted mustard onto his burger, it struck him as especially apt. The kids as locusts, sweeping over him and Janine and Theo, picking them all clean.
A few minutes later, everyone stood around talking through mouths full of burger on the patio. Nolan was even laughing appreciatively at one of his friend’s stories instead of interjecting in order to refocus attention on himself, which was a minor miracle in its own right. Theo was thrilled by the reaction to his burgers, asking everyone multiple times if they were too well done just to hear them say, “No, they’re perfect!” The girls all seemed to know how to feel about Nolan again. They clearly wanted to impress him but didn’t know how. Blaine sympathized with them. One never knew what Nolan was going to appreciate from minute to minute. The party, though Blaine would not consider it fun by any reasonable definition of the word, was at least progressing towards a peaceful conclusion.
Then Janine emerged from the house with the vegetable tray and everyone stopped talking. For one thing, it wasn’t a vegetable tray. It was only a celery tray. And for another thing, the amount of celery on the tray was preposterous. Janine was clearly struggling with the weight of all that celery. As she made her way across the patio, the tray started to list to one side and Blaine was afraid she was going to lose the celery all over the cement in a wet, green avalanche, but she managed to right the tray just in time. Only then did it occur to Blaine that he should offer his assistance.
“No,” said Janine. “I’m almost there. Clear a spot on the table.”
Blaine cleared a nice, big landing zone on the table in the midst of the chip bags and half-consumed cans of pop. Janine set the tray down on the table and everyone exhaled at once. “There,” said Janine, turning and smiling at Nolan and his friends. “Sorry it took so long to get the celery out here. I just wanted to make sure there was enough.”
Nolan erupted with laughter. He roared and cackled, his head thrown back. “Enough,” he managed to squeak. “Enough celery!” He pounded his chest with one hand and pointed at the mountain of celery with the other, tears trickling out of the corners of his eyes as his laughter fed off of itself and grew wilder. Nolan’s friends laughed too, but more uncertainly, shooting inquisitive glances at each other. For his part, Blaine thought Nolan’s reaction was weird, but he had to chuckle a little too. It was way too much celery.
Even Janine was smiling, though she seemed more confused than anything. “You guys like celery, right? Am I missing something?”
This sent Nolan to new heights of hysteria.
Blaine was over it. He turned to the celery tray and added two to his plate, the dutiful husband. He was considering adding a third when Theo exploded.
“Nolan! Nolan, you get a hold of yourself! You’re being incredibly rude!” Theo’s face was flushed red. Nolan kept laughing. “Nolan! Shut up! Apologize to your mother!”
No one else was laughing now. Nolan’s friends looked uncomfortable. Discomfort was a frequent hazard of being friends with Nolan.
“Theo,” said Janine. “It’s not a big deal. I don’t even get what he’s laughing at. He doesn’t have to apologize.”
“No!” shouted Theo. He spiked his tongs onto the patio with a clang and stalked over to his son, grabbing him by the bicep. The instant he touched Nolan’s arm, Nolan went silent, his face going eerily still.
“Let go of me,” said Nolan, his voice dry and sharp.
Theo took his hand off of Nolan’s arm and took two steps backward, his indignation completely evaporated. “Apologize to your mother.” The way he said it made it sound like he was pleading for his life.
“Nolan,” said Blaine. “Is the show over? Should we applaud now?”
Nolan turned his head and glared at Blaine, taking one step toward him.
“Go ahead,” said Blaine. “Say something scary, Nolan. Preferably a vague threat, like a villain in a bad movie. We promise to act impressed.”
“Stop it,” said Janine. Blaine felt her hand on his shoulder, her fingers squeezing, hard and tense. “Stop antagonizing him.”
As soon as Janine said this, Nolan’s face changed. The tension went out of his shoulders. He stood up straighter. A crooked smile appeared on his lips. “Just keep talking, Blaine. Let everyone see how you really are.”
“And how am I?” asked Blaine. “How am I really, Nolan?”
“You’re petty,” said Nolan. “You’re jealous. You’re mad ‘cause I’m gonna break all your records. You keep denying it, but everyone can see it’s true.”
Blaine looked at Janine, at Theo, at Nolan’s friends. They were all watching him with wide, wary eyes as if he was defusing a bomb and had narrowed which wire to cut down to the old familiar red or blue.
“How about this,” said Blaine, pointing at Nolan. “You and me, one on one right now. With everyone watching.”
Nolan frowned. “One on one? Basketball?”
“Yes, basketball. Right now.”
“For what?” asked Nolan.
“Bragging rights,” said Blaine. “Make- it-take-it by ones, straight to 11. No twos.”
Nolan’s grin was equal parts disbelief and exultation. “I,” he said, “am going to destroy you.”
Nolan shot for ball from the left wing, easily beyond where the three-point line would have been. “Bank,” said Nolan while the ball was in mid-flight. The ball banked off of the backboard and through the hoop. His friends cheered.
“There ya’ go, Nolan,” shouted Theo. Blaine didn’t point out to Theo that he’d been furious with his son not ten minutes ago and that Blaine had actually stood up for him. It wasn’t worth the energy. Blaine had given up trying to figure out why Theo did anything.
The spectators were lined up along one side of the cement playing surface, even Janine, though she’d been trying to talk Blaine and Nolan out of the game since Blaine had first mentioned it.
Nolan stood facing the hoop from 20 feet away, dribbling the ball between his legs while Blaine did just a few more last-second stretches. Neither Blaine nor Nolan had changed clothes. Blaine still wore his khaki shorts and belt, his new tennis shoes, and an un-tucked horizontally striped polo shirt. Nolan wore a baggy Multioak Basketball t-shirt, a pair of shiny black basketball shorts that hung well below his knees, and one of his two dozen pairs of basketball shoes. He was always dressed to play basketball.
Night was coming on soft and slow. The air was warm and fresh in a way only early summer evenings can achieve. Blaine, facing Nolan from six feet away, shuffled his feet on the cement, swiveling his toes to get a feel for his traction. It was adequate.
“Check ball,” said Nolan, and instead of a crisp bounce or chest pass, he rolled the ball so that Blaine had stoop down to pick it up. Nolan smirked as Blaine fired the ball back at him with both hands. “Calm down,” said Nolan. “It’s just a game,” and he made a kissing noise with his lips as he launched a high-arcing shot that barely grazed the front of the rim.
Blaine corralled the rebound and dribbled out past the crack in the pavement the player with the ball had to cross after a change of possession. Although he desperately wanted to talk trash, he said nothing. The last thing he wanted to do was talk trash and then get embarrassed like Nolan had just done. The less he handled this whole situation like Nolan, the better, especially with Janine and Theo watching and analyzing every word and action.
Nolan was playing way off of Blaine, daring him to shoot. He didn’t even put a hand up as Blaine rattled in his first shot from 19 feet. It wasn’t just his first shot of the game, or of the day, or even of the week. Blaine couldn’t remember the last time he’d shot a basketball. It had been at least a year. But it felt good. His muscles remembered.
“1-Oh,” said Blaine as he checked the ball to Nolan. “Go ahead. Say it was lucky.”
“It was lucky,” said Nolan, zipping the ball back to Blaine.
Blaine caught the ball at his chest and smiled, his palms stinging.
“Wait a minute,” said Janine from the sidelines. “Blaine, you just made a shot. Isn’t it Nolan’s ball?”
“Shut up, mom!” shouted Nolan, not taking his eyes off of Blaine. “It’s make- it-take it!”
“Be respectful to your mother,” said Blaine, and he gave Nolan a dramatic shot-fake that he would have bet everything he owned Nolan would go for. But Nolan didn’t go for it. Instead, without leaving his feet, he waited for the second pump-fake and swiped at the ball on its way up, knocking it loose. The ball went straight down, hit the cement, and bounced right back into Blaine’s flailing hands. Nolan tried to strip it again, couldn’t jar it loose, and then bit hard on Blaine’s third pump-fake. Blaine drove unimpeded to the hoop and was so open that he blew the initial layup and still managed to tip in his own miss. “2-Oh,” said Blaine, not smiling, not looking at the spectators, not letting himself feel too good. Not quite yet.
“C’mon, Nolan,” shouted Theo. “You had him. You’ll get him next time. You just need one stop and then it’s all over.”
“Check,” said Blaine, flipping the ball to Nolan. Nolan passed it back without any extra attitude and assumed an intense defensive stance: feet shoulder-width apart, back straight, hands up and at the ready. Blaine turned his back to Nolan and leaned into him, steadily dribbling the ball with his right hand, keeping it out and away from his body where Nolan couldn’t poke it away. Blaine and Nolan were the same height, but Blaine had close to thirty pounds on Nolan. Even with Nolan bodying him up as hard as he could, Blaine didn’t find it too difficult to back his step-son down and toss in a little fade-away from the left block.
Nolan screamed an expletive and kicked the pole.
“Nolan!” said Janine.
“Stay focused, son!” said Theo. “He can’t make everything.”
“Can’t I?” asked Blaine, smiling at Theo. “I’d say I’m on fire but I’m afraid if I did, you might take your clothes off and refuse to put ‘em back on.”
Theo’s face went white and Janine gasped. Several of Nolan’s friends laughed. One of the girls clasped a hand over her mouth. Everyone in town knew the story.
“That’s it,” said Janine. “Blaine, Nolan, this game is over. I knew you guys wouldn’t be able to be nice.” She walked out onto the court and stood between her son and her husband, holding up her hands like a traffic cop.
“Get out of the way, mom!” screamed Nolan. “Get off the court!”
Angry and frightened, Janine looked to Blaine for help.
“We’re in the middle of a game,” said Blaine. “We can’t stop in the middle.”
“Get off the court, Janine,” said Theo. “Don’t worry about me. I’m fine. I’ve heard it all before. My son’s got my back. Right, son?”
Nolan ignored him.
Defeated, Janine walked back off of the court. “You guys are all sick,” she said. “I can’t watch anymore. I hope you both lose.” Then she turned her back on the court, walked across the yard to the table on the patio, and began to clean up the sad remnants of the meal.
“Check ball,” said Blaine.
This time he backed Nolan all the way down to the right block. He probably could have just shot the fade-away all night if he wanted, but he wanted to win with more style than that, so this time he faked the fade, Nolan lurched off balance, and Blaine stepped through and went up and under. But just before he released the shot, Nolan bowled into Blaine’s back with his shoulder and sent him straight into the pole. Blaine managed to get his hands up fast enough to take some of the force off of the collision, but not all of it. The spectators didn’t react to Nolan’s cheap shot. The evening was quiet but for the angry crinkling of empty chip bags coming from Janine on the patio. She must not have seen what had happened. Blaine knelt with one hand on the pole, feeling his split, fattened lower lip with his other hand, blinking the black dots out of his vision.
He looked up at his son. No, not his son. His step son. Only a step son.
“You calling that a foul?” asked Nolan, holding the ball against his hip. He asked as if it was the least important thing that had ever passed between his lips.
“Nah,” said Blaine. “Your ball.”
“You got him now, son,” said Theo. “Just go by him every time. He can’t check you, Nolan. You’re too quick. Right to the rim, every time. He can’t get up enough to challenge you at the rim.”
“Shut up, dad,” said Nolan. He held the basketball in his left hand and wiped his right hand on the front of his shorts. “Check ball.” He bounced the ball to Blaine, Blaine bounced it back, and Nolan blew past him with a first-step that Blaine could scarcely believe was possible. Blaine was almost too slow to whirl around and lash out with his right foot just as Nolan was taking off for an uncontested finger-roll. Almost too slow, but not quite, and as Blaine’s foot tangled with Nolan’s legs and sent him tumbling awkwardly onto the pavement, Blaine either felt or heard a pop in Nolan’s knee and he knew in his gut that it was something serious. Something vital to the basic functions of a knee. Something with a long, long recovery time, and even then the knee might never be the same.
And right before everything got really ugly, Blaine stood over his fallen step-son and said this: “Let’s see you break my records now.”