Homecoming night, senior year, 1964, I didn’t have a car. Dad had pulled it.
The Saturday before I’d had Mom’s car and had driven Jim Huber to Bodega Bay to meet a girl from San Francisco he’d met during the summer when her family vacationed up the coast. She was going to spend the weekend at that new place, Sea Ranch, and had written him that she’d probably be in Bodega Bay shopping with her family Saturday. Jim wanted to see her again and asked if I could drive him down, though he knew as well as I did I was only supposed to drive between Fort Bragg and Point Arena. Why he couldn’t get his own family car I don’t remember, but I could always get Mom’s on a weekend, and you could always drive her car anywhere you wanted. Fort Bragg to San Francisco. Hell, Fort Bragg to San Diego, as long as you got it back in the evening and filled it with gas. She never checked the speedometer; I don’t think she really cared. Dad cared enough for both of them, and it was my misfortune to use Mom’s car on a Saturday when he’d driven it Friday afternoon and used it again to go to town Sunday morning. He found me in the kitchen having breakfast when he came back.
“Where did you take the car yesterday?” he asked.
“Someone put more than two hundred miles on that old car yesterday, Son. I can’t believe you did that driving to Point Arena.”
“We were in Point Arena.”
“And where else did you go?”
I rarely lied to him because it never worked. He always ferreted out the truth and exacted a penalty, no matter how slight the fabrication. I’m no genius, but I’d come up loser in that game often enough to learn to tell the truth, not to argue the foul, and take whatever time I got in the penalty box. The game worked best that way.
“Bodega Bay,” I said.
“Jesus, Davis! Why the hell would you go to Bodega Bay?”
“Jim wanted to. He wanted to meet a girl there he’d met last summer.”
“And you just went ahead and did what Jim Huber wanted?”
“It seemed alright, Dad. We were just driving and went down there.”
“It’s not alright, Davis. You know you can only take the car Fort Bragg to Point Arena: that’s the rule. Fort Bragg to Point Arena, Point Arena to Fort Bragg.”
He repeated Fort Bragg to Point Arena, Point Arena to Fort Bragg over and over as if he had just discovered geography. The upshot was my not having a car for two weeks, one day for every ten miles I had put on the car that Saturday. I didn’t even mention that some of those miles had accrued between home and Point Arena. Any adjustment for miles driven within Dad’s parameters was unlikely.
So I had to confess to Ginger Franklin that although we had a date, I wouldn’t have a car homecoming night. She was royally incensed — she fully expected to be named homecoming queen and knew the queen deserved better than being taken to the homecoming by a boy and his parents or a boy and his best friend. She ditched me for Gerald Hoffmeyer, the snarkiest kid in the senior class. Jim did get his family car the night of homecoming, although neither of us now had a date. His sister Gloria was home from Chico State and was with him when he came to pick me up: we were both on the basketball team. Gloria was driving so maybe Jim didn’t have the car for the night.
We would never know for sure, but things hadn’t turned out that bad after all. I’d been in love with Gloria since I was six, though she never treated me as anything other than her younger brother’s friend, to be tolerated only because he often appeared in tandem with him. When she blossomed into a statuesque fifteen year old, I was close to tears of joy every time I was at the Huber house, which was the only time I dared get near her. Psychologists tell us crying at moments of intense positive emotion is our way of restoring emotional equilibrium, but I don’t remember my equilibrium ever ratcheting back to normal when Gloria was around. She rarely greeted me in public and I rarely risked the pain of being ignored by her in front of someone else, but I did see her often because I spent a lot of time at Jim’s house.
The Hubers lived within walking distance in a misshapen structure they'd modified in odd ways to fit their family of six. In addition to Gloria and Jim, there was a set of much-younger twin boys. The upstairs was a converted attic — huge open loft room where Jim and the twins slept and a large bathroom built into a corner of the loft. Gloria’s room was downstairs next to her parents’ bedroom, but she took her showers upstairs. She could leave hair ties, blue jeans, and towels lying around upstairs and it never bothered Jim or the twins, which she could not have got by with downstairs in a bathroom shared with her parents.
The stairway from upstairs dropped into the family room where Jim and I were often watching sports or horsing around. I died a thousand deaths watching Gloria come down those stairs, nothing but a towel wrapped around her lithe and gorgeous body, her nearly perfect thighs opening the towel ever so slightly as she stepped down each riser. To expire with that image in my brain seemed a beautiful way to die, and I was not fearful of dying young.
“Hello, Davis,” Gloria said.
“Hi, Gloria,” I said.
And that was all I could think to say to her all the way to the school. She was driving. I saw no reason to disturb her.
“Are you ready, Davis?” Jim asked. “You know coach is going to have you on Crede tonight.”
We were playing Branscomb. Jay Crede was their senior superstar, all North State and already committed to Cal Berkeley on a full scholarship. As in every game that season, I would be assigned to guard the best scorer. I was a decent defensive player but I was not honored with guarding the best because of my defensive skills. The truth was I didn’t score very much, and if I got in foul trouble, Coach Morrison had no worries about taking me out. I was expendable. If it helped the team, I could be thrown to the wolves. The team from Branscomb was The Eagles so — on this homecoming night — I would be thrown to the birds, so to speak. Crede was not just faster than I, and quicker, he was also six-three. Because I'm solidly six feet if stretched on a rack, no one expected anything great out of me guarding Crede except Coach Morrison. He expected all of us to play like McDonald All-Americans every night.
The game started with three Branscomb turnovers. After seven minutes, we were up 10-6 when Branscomb began feeding the ball to Crede. He got past me time and again on the baseline, and I added to my failure by hacking him on three of those drives. He made all his free throws. Coach pulled me, sent in Rudy Kreiger, and pointed for me to sit next to him on the bench.
“You have to favor his right,” Coach said. “That’s his shot. But you can’t go for his fake right. If he fakes and goes left, you have to get your feet in front of him even if you’re favoring him right.”
Sure: made sense. Now that he’d outlined how to guard Crede, I couldn’t for the life of me understand how I’d done so poorly. Crede meanwhile got the ball again, faked Kreiger, and went around him on the baseline for another layup. The only reason Kreiger didn’t foul him was that he wasn’t close enough to touch him with a long-handled broom.
“Why do you guys keep giving him the baseline?” Coach Morrison moaned, slapping his forehead.
Everyone knew Coach Morrison was not the brightest bulb in the stairwell, and as a senior, I thought it my responsibility to shed some light.
“Maybe it’s because he’s all North State and on his way to Cal Berkeley on a full.”
“What did you say?” Coach Morrison asked.
I repeated what I’d said and added that his being six-three and quicker than anything in Mendocino County other than a bobcat or two also had something to do with it.
“So you think he’s better than you?”
“You believe he’s better than you? That’s what I’m asking.”
“You’re asking me, Coach? Of course he’s better.”
“That’s the difference between you and me, Davis. When I played ball I never thought anyone was better. I didn’t care who they were; I came to outplay them.”
“Unrealistic expectations are probably what make a coach,” I said.
“You think you’re pretty smart, don’t you? I know you’re going to Cal Berkeley too, but you’re not as smart as you think. Seems you don’t even know the difference between smart and smart-assed.”
I had come this far: why not twist the dagger? “Yes, Berkeley. On a full merit,” I said.
Morrison stared at me.
“I want you to move down to the end of the bench, Davis, and sit with the freshmen. I’m sure they’ll appreciate your brilliance.”
So I moved to the end of the bench and stayed there until the fourth quarter, when Morrison sent me back in, again to guard Crede. He had already scored about a thousand points, so it didn’t matter if I let him take the baseline. It was suitable punishment for a senior smart-ass but not cruel and unusual. High school quarters run only eight minutes, and Crede only scored another hundred points or so before Branscomb’s coach set him down for the night. We lost badly. The final score was incidental, not worth mentioning.
After the game while the basketball team was in the locker room taking showers, the homecoming committee changed the gym from a basketball court to a dance hall. They looped bunting along the bleachers, strung ribbons around the walls, hung paper lanterns from ceiling lights. They draped strings of small decorative lights under the gym ceiling lights and dimmed the gym lights to a soft glow. They lowered all basketball rims and hung streamers from them, then set a battery-powered votive light anchored to cardboard on each rim. The piece de resistance was the queen’s throne they rolled into the north end of the gym. A large armchair had been wrapped in foil, a roll of dark burgundy felt laid down the back and across the seat and a thick ermine rug under it extending three or four feet along the gym floor. This was the throne on which the queen would be crowned later in the evening, usually about half way through the dance. Who might be chosen queen was kept at fever intensity as long as possible. A gold rope was tied across the seat so that no one could sit on it.
By the time Jim and I came out of the locker room, music was playing and couples were dancing: to three or four rock and roll tracks, then to a slow up-close-and-rub-your-body-against-me ballad, then more rock and roll, all played by our school DJ, Ronnie Scripts. No one called him Ronnie anymore; everyone called him DJ. His list had been carefully blue-penciled by the school principal, but there were still the Beach Boys, the Animals, the Kinks, Sam Cooke, and that song Pretty Woman by Roy Orbison. Right then Jim and I were more attuned to Only The Lonely. We stood in the gym doorway and watched the dancers. What the hell was going on here anyway? We were on the basketball team. Weren’t the girls supposed to be rushing over to dance with us? I watched Ginger and Gerald go by in one of those slow up-close-and-rub-your-body dances; they made a nice couple. I ran my eyes along the bleachers where sets of parents huddled supposedly to chaperone dancers although few of them seemed to be paying attention. Gloria was sitting next to two couples, chatting with them. Of course Jim’s parents would be home with the twins. I was suddenly overcome with positive emotion, thankful that Ginger Franklin had ditched me for the night. Maybe, just maybe, before the night was out, I would find the courage to get Gloria out of the bleachers and onto the dance floor. Plenty of time. No need to rush.
Jim and I moseyed around the hall, chatting with different classmates. Everyone knew everyone else; we were a small community; a lot of us were cousins. I can’t remember what we had to say to each other, but I do know no one had anything nasty to say about the ballgame. My friend and cousin Mary Backus found me and asked me to dance.
When the dance ended, she said to me, “For someone who plays ball, you sure don’t have much rhythm.”
Honesty is one of the brutal attributes of friendship.
“Maybe that’s why I gave Crede the baseline all night,” I said. Mary stared at me.
“What are you talking about?”
“Nothing, just nothing.”
There really was nothing to explain. I’d need a diagram to make sense. Mary wandered away, and I checked the bleachers again. Gloria was chatting with someone else. What the hell: was she running for county commissioner or something? Why couldn’t she just sit there by herself? I was not going to go up there to ask her in front of a neighbor to come down and dance with me.
No one ever knew who brought the opossum. When we first saw it, Chris Byrd and Donnie Beadles had it, although they said Ernie Schroeder had picked it up on the road and brought it to the dance. It was a young animal, about three quarters grown. They had rigged a collar around its neck out of red cord they’d found at school. It was playing dead, and Chris was holding it in his hands like an offering. Donnie was holding on to the cord.
“What are you doing with that thing?” Jim asked.
“It’s playing dead,” Chris said. “We want to lay it on top of the basket — he pointed to the hoop on the north end of the gym — and see what happens when it wakes up.”
“How are you going to get it up there without somebody stopping you?” Jim asked.
Chris laughed a silly laugh. He was a small kid, no more than five-two or five-three, although tough and wiry and quick. He played a great shortstop on our baseball team.
“You can lift me, Jim, and I’ll just lay it up there.”
Jim was six-two, broad-shouldered, muscled. There was no doubt he could lift Chris. As I remember, there was little discussion. There was a why-the-hell-not? aspect to Jim’s character which kicked in at that moment. I thought I’d suggest they not do it, but in the time I was thinking, they were moving toward the basketball hoop. I was quickly ten feet behind on a crowded dance floor.
When they were under the rim with the piece of cardboard on top and the electronic votive light flickering above it, Chris handed the sleeping opossum to Donnie Beadles carefully, touchingly, as if it were a baby. Jim picked up Chris and set him on his shoulders. Chris grabbed Jim’s head and wrestled himself onto his knees so he could reach the basketball rim. All of this happened in seconds. The DJ was playing Doo Wah Diddy Diddy, “We’re so happy, and that’s how we’re gonna’ stay.”
When Chris bent down to get the opossum from Donnie but couldn’t reach it, Jim held out his big hand — palm up — and Donnie laid the sleeping opossum in it. Jim lifted the opossum slowly toward Chris, and just as Chris was about to take it, the opossum woke up and went ape shit.
It hissed furiously in Jim’s face, then bit viciously through his hand. Jim screamed and dropped to his knees. Chris grabbed the basketball rim and hung suspended. The electronic votive candle went flying. Chris dropped from the rim and Jim grabbed him.
“God damn it, Chris, it bit me,” he bellowed.
The opossum scurried across the gym cutting a path through screaming high schoolers like a jet skier on a crowded lake and disappeared under the bleachers. Donnie Beadles was still holding the red cord but the opossum had slipped the noose.
Mayhem reigned in the gym. Cries of “Opossum,” “Opossum,” mingled with screams of pure terror. Doors were flung open and students fled. DJ Scripts had the good sense to flick on the regular gym lights, and parents came jumping out of the bleachers to restore order. In minutes the principal had shouted the crowd quiet, and students who’d fled started to creep back in. Jim still had Chris Byrd by the shoulder. Staggering across to the homecoming chair, he sat down heavily on the chair, gold cord and all. Jim held his bitten hand out to Chris, blood dripping on the ermine carpet, splattering like Rorschach inkblots.
“He bit me, Chris!” Jim shouted. It was as if they were alone in the gym. “The son-of-a-bitch bit me.”
“I thought he was sleeping,” Chris pleaded his innocence.
The principal quickly joined them and ascertained Jim had been bitten by a opossum that was now loose. He shouted for parents to shut the doors to the gym. Gloria jumped down from the bleachers and hurried over to Jim. A parent came running out of the locker room with a towel and began wrapping Jim’s hand. The wrapping was big as a hornet’s nest, but the bleeding was hidden. Jim turned Chris loose and gingerly used his good hand to lay the bandaged hand in his lap.
“What happened?” Gloria asked.
“The son-of-a-bitch bit me.”
“We know that, Jim, but what, when, how, why? How does James Huber get bitten by a opossum at a homecoming dance in a gym?”
In time there were answers to all these questions, and the potential seriousness of being bitten by a opossum became more obvious. Doc Michaels arrived. He unwrapped the towel; the opossum had bitten through both sides of Jim’s hand.
“We’ll start with soap and water,” Michaels said. “Then we’ll use disinfectant and dress it. What’d you do with the opossum?”
A hush settled over the gym, then everyone started talking. Everyone knew exactly where the opossum had gone: under the bleachers, up on the stage — the gym included a stage recessed into one wall for school assemblies and plays — in the cabinets under the stage, down the stairs to the locker rooms, out through the gym doors into the hallway. It was reassuring that the outside doors to the gym had never been opened in the mad flight from the dance; the opossum was still somewhere in the school, and we had to find it. We were country folk. No one said anything about rabies; no one said anything about the opossum being rabid; no one said anything about rabies immunoglobulin shots. But we knew why we had to find that opossum.
The principal stood at the gym door filtering people out, checking carefully that no opossum slipped out with them. I was one of the core group left inside to search for the opossum; most of the basketball team was. Ginger Fletcher left crying, clinging to Gerald, looking back wistfully at Jim ensconced on the throne she had expected to occupy that night. Parents at the end of the hall shuffled people out of the building, again checking carefully that no opossum slipped out. Doc Michaels led Jim to the boy’s locker room. The rest of us started our opossum hunt.
We searched under the bleachers, crawled under them with flashlights so as not to miss a corner or crack where a opossum might be hiding. We found Jaw Busters, Red Hots, and Sugar Daddy candy wrappers. Someone found a half-eaten licorice pipe. We found two programs from last spring’s graduation, sheet music from a Christmas program, and two pages of Joe Radley’s October math homework, but we didn’t find the opossum. We looked behind the stage, in the wardrobes for costumes and the chests of drawers for props, and we looked behind and under the chest of drawers and wardrobes. We found bobby pins, a bag of shriven apples, two empty Coca Cola bottles, and a love letter to Theresa Redel who graduated in 1959. Make no mistake about it, Joel would love her forever, or at least that’s what he said in the letter. We crawled under the stage and scanned with our flashlights. We didn’t find the opossum. We searched the boy’s locker room, even inside the dirty trash cans; we dumped the dirty towel baskets. We searched the girl’s locker room and their dirty towel baskets and trash cans. We didn’t find the opossum.
Jim’s mom and dad had arrived and were talking with Doc Michaels about how long they had until Jim had to be taken to Ukiah for those rabies immunoglobulin shots. Doc said twenty-four hours max, but the sooner the better. The principal called us together in the middle of the gym and exhorted us to go over every nook and cranny again. The opossum had to be here.
“We all know Jim and we don’t want him to have to suffer those shots, do we?” he asked us.
Jim was back in the gym sitting on the throne; he seemed a bit embarrassed by all the fuss. I went over to him.
“We’ll find that son-of-a-bitch,” I told him. Gloria was standing next to us.
“Oh Davis,” she said. “We have to find that opossum.”
“We’ll find it.”
“I’m so afraid we won’t.”
And as if despairing, she threw her arms around me and hugged me hard, burying her face in my neck. I could feel her breasts against my chest. Lancelot never loved bigger than I loved at that moment.
“We’ll find that opossum; I promise you, Gloria.”
“I can’t bear the thought of Jim taking those awful shots. You find that opossum, Davis, and I’ll marry you.”
Suddenly the one thing that stood between me and a life of bliss was finding that opossum.
Good god, did I hunt. I crawled under the bleachers again and checked every crevice. I crawled under the stage again and lifted all the mats stacked there and tamped each mat carefully to make sure the opossum had not crawled in one. I went back to the boy’s locker rooms. I dug in the waste bins again. I dug through the dirty towel baskets again. It was hard to focus because I knew I had to make sure no one found the opossum before I did. It wasn’t just Jim having to take shots; my future was at stake. I went from the boy’s locker room to the girl’s locker room, and I searched again the dirty towel basket in the girl’s locker room and the trash cans again.
I never found the opossum.
When I rushed back into the gym, the Huber family was gone. They had decided to take no risks and to take Jim across the mountain to Ukiah to start those rabies immunoglobulin shots. I was Jim’s best friend and almost married into the family, but no one had told me; no one had ever looked for me. I could hardly fault Gloria. I had promised her I would find the opossum but hadn’t.
Coach Morrison gave me a ride home. I’m not sure that he and his wife didn’t plan it ahead of time when they knew I needed a ride. I could imagine his telling her, “you get in the backseat and send that smart-ass up front with me.”
When we got to their car, she opened the back door, crawled in and flopped on her side across the seat. “I’m exhausted,” she moaned, kicking off her shoes and pulling her feet up on the seat. Coach closed the door after her.
“Get in, get in,” he said to me, pointing to the front passenger’s seat.
He took the county road along the river and drove very slowly through the dark redwood groves.
“Some kids made some really bad choices tonight,” he said after a long silence. I had hoped he would — but really hadn’t expected him to — keep quiet the whole drive.
“Life is all about good choices, Kid. You’re bringing the ball up court, you don’t have to make the pinpoint pass. Not at all. Just make the easy pass, the good pass. Make the better choice.”
I could have answered ‘yes,’ or ‘okay,’ or something like that, but I didn’t want to encourage him. I sat very still and stared through the windshield at the beams of the headlights cutting through darkness.
“Life will blow its whistle on you. I tell you, Kid: it will, it will. Life has a big referee who watches over the game, and you make a bad choice, he’s gonna’ whistle you down. And there will be a penalty. Life doesn’t just blow the whistle accidentally; it blows the whistle when you make that bad choice.”
I hadn’t studied Plato’s ethics yet or I might have told him all human actions inherently serve some end or purpose and whether they are right or wrong depends on the person’s overall objective. We had studied Greek myths, and I thought about a Greek god in a black and white striped shirt with a nasty attitude and a big whistle and lots of curly hair. Not a bad Olympian concept. Might have brought some order to Attica before things got out of hand if he’d been part of the pantheon.
“It’s really simple, Kid. Good choices get you good results; good results get you more good choices. It feeds on itself. You get a hot hand and even that hard choice comes easy, even that bounce pass from the wing into the key becomes a good choice. It’s just that simple, Kid.”
“Okay,” I said. We had pulled to a stop in front of our house and I ran no great risk in answering him now.
“Thanks for the ride.”
“Don’t mention it,” he said.
I went inside and stood by the window and watched him turn around in the driveway and drive away, then went to bed and fell asleep. I was exhausted.
The school custodian, Riley, found the opossum the next morning. She was trying to climb out of the highest window in the gym which had been opened a crack the night before for better ventilation. Riley knocked her down with a broom, dropped her in a metal garbage can, and took her to a vet in Ukiah. She tested negative for rabies, and Jim only had to take the one rabies immunoglobulin shot he’d been given that morning. Thanks to Riley. Once again I was not part of the inner Huber circle making decisions in Ukiah so I never knew if Gloria graced Riley with the same offer she’d proffered me. I hoped she had not. I hoped she’d shed tears of joy and allowed her intense positive emotion to revert to equilibrium and left it at that. That’s the way it’s supposed to work, isn’t it?
By the time we graduated the next spring, the war had heated up. Jim joined the Coast Guard. He couldn’t be left to go alone. I went too, over my mom’s dead body though she lived another thirty-three years. Those were our choices, good or not; there were no referee whistles stopping us. It was 1968 before I got to Berkeley. By then I was radicalized and much more interested in stopping the war than in college basketball. I don’t know if Jay Crede was still there or ever played on the UC team.
Jim spent the last months of his enlistment on patrol in Puget Sound and mustered out in Washington. He married a local girl and wound up living on the peninsula, in Sequim. Again, that why-the-hell-not aspect of his personality probably guided him, or why Sequim? Neither of us ever spent much time in our old haunts in Mendocino County. Like most young people in those small coastal towns who get out, we didn’t come back.
I stopped to visit Jim on a trip through the Northwest a few years ago. He was still broad-shouldered, muscular, and just as impulsive as I remembered. For entertainment, he took me to a low-limit, all-night Texas Hold ‘Em game at the 7 Cedars Casino. I watched him lose a couple of hundred dollars and wondered how often this happened. A why-the-hell-not attitude is no asset in a poker game. But he seemed to have the money to lose and didn’t bemoan his losses.
When we had breakfast at the casino, he was cheerful and talkative. He told me Gloria was married and living in Lafayette, not far from me. He said I should look her up sometime. I thought about it. It would be great fun to meet her husband and to tell him the story of how Gloria had once promised to marry me, but it would not be fun to see her and to still feel smitten in some tiny recess of my psyche or to still pine even faintly for her impulsive offer that crazy night to have really meant something. Dumb as he was, maybe Coach was right. The better choice was simple. Skip it.