I walk inside the locker room and the lights are off and it is black, a cave. My eyes ache and after a bit I see him there, at the far end, huddled in a corner, face illuminated by a screen. Somewhere water drips. A light in another room off at the far end is seizuring and swinging. He must have tried to bring bring it down in his rage. His face is shining and wet from tears and my coming in does not startle him. His eyes are fixed on the screen. I call out to him.
Still, the screen. I begin to walk. The room is a wasteland now. I see NBA socks strewn about, jerseys and shorts shredded and stretched. I fumble along in the darkness, dodging mouthpieces. On the ground lay a cardboard cutout of Cliff Paul, his eyes gone. A picture of Clippers era Bill Walton has been defaced — he now has several black teeth, an eye-patch, a penis on his cheek — and a caption has been added.
It reads: No. You make your free throws.
The carpet has been ripped up revealing the concrete below and sidewalk chalk is littered about the room, making the ground a pastel rainbow, everything the color of souvenir t-shirts you buy at the beach, the bodegas rich with life and possibility. There is no fear there. Not in the sun.
My mind sprints from me. Port Arthur. The shrimp. The catfish. UGK seeping out of a speaker. The bare feet and the grass and the breeze falling on me. My Renata there, smiling, sweating. Home. A creak from the swinging shine. I am brought back, deep in the locker room again.
There is a message, a question, on the concrete. I catch it when the light’s swings and flickers offer it to me. My eyes will not glass.
It reads: And what of toughness?
And so I turn to him. I’m close now and see that the blanket he’s wrapped himself in is a bear rug, the head of a grizzly — smiling? — atop his own. He is rocking some and I see the light move on him like the evolving paintings on Rorschach’s face. He has headphones in. I look at the screen and he is watching himself. He’s on YouTube. I strain my eyes to see the text. The clip is titled “Blake Griffin Is Soft: Supercut”.
There is a shot of Zach Randolph taking him down. Another of him faking hurt after almost getting elbowed. More of the same. I stare at the length of the video. 34:57.
I slowly reach for what I see now is an iPad and when my hand makes contact with it he pulls away. My grip is Port Arthur and Renata and strong and he cannot pull it away with one hand. I try to talk to him.
Give it to me, son.
He says nothing. He reaches for the iPad with his second hand and pulls. Still I hold on. I speak to him again.
I can help you, but you must let go.
He does not. He pulls with both hands while I hold with one, his life the iPad. He bites me on the right forearm and I let go. It didn’t hurt, but I see now, in the brief look he gives me, how far from home he is. His eyes are a sustained silver, like the skies above the beaches in Galveston in early fall when the great, towering oaks start to change their outfits. He is consumed, his whole damn world a cloud. He hasn’t seen himself in quite some time. He runs away, out of the locker room, his sobs as frequent as his footsteps.
I stand there with blood dripping onto my red Tims and I find grace and whisper into the paralyzed silence that this is where I was always supposed to be.
Your greatest challenge.
His words flash before me, a chalk firework.
And what of toughness?