old basketball goal and hoop

When the Lights Go Out at 10:16

Bookmark this page to follow along to When the Lights Go Out at 10:16 as it is being written and revised. Last updated: September 9, 2019.

In the summer of 2003, one of my close childhood friends and next door neighbor, Jeremiah Hamlett, from Phenix, Virginia, was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. The night I received word of his diagnosis, I went over to the basketball court across the street from my house and Jeremiah’s and sat in my car with a green notebook pressed against the steering wheel of my car, and began writing. This is the story of our childhood growing up in small town America. This is the story of life and friendship in the face of cancer.

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book cover for childhood memoir by jeffrey pillow

 

Dedication

For Jeremiah and our friends and to the childhood we experienced together

I asked a hummingbird about what was wrong
Why with other birds it didn’t join and sing a song?
It put me squarely in my place
And said with a very straight face,
To their songs I enjoy humming along.

—RALEIGH D. MEADOW

 

Foreword

Kevin Hancock, September 2006

For the past couple of years, ever since Jeremiah was diagnosed, I have thought the same exact things that I have just read. Every day now I think about Rob, Jeremiah, you, and myself and all of what we did as kids.

I remember when you and Rob and Jeremiah got caught on the tracks when the train was coming, and to this day I don’t think you’ve ever gotten back on them. As dumb as it may sound, I wish I would have been there with y’all.

You know as well as I do that we all looked up to Rob and Jeremiah for everything. I was lucky enough to have one of them as my brother, but I have always and will always consider you and Jeremiah my brothers as well.

The kids of Phenix, Virginia

Introduction

About the title. For quite some time, When the Lights Go Out at 10:16 was aptly titled The Court: Jeremiah’s Story, after the basketball court in Phenix, Virginia, where we all lived out our days in childhood. Shortly after Jeremiah passed in January 2007, I changed the title to what it currently is today to reflect Jeremiah’s death. He was “going home,” you could say. It was meant symbolically.

You see, 10:16 was not the time of day Jeremiah passed. 10:16 was the time of night when the lights at the basketball court in Phenix would turn off like clockwork; and we, as kids, would stand from where we were seated on the court and make our way home.

“Welp, must be 10:16,” Kevin would often say.

And then Robbie and Kevin would make their way one direction toward Park Street, the Tucker boys in another toward Charlotte, and Jeremiah and I, who lived across the street from each other on Church, would walk up the small hillside toward our homes.

As we grew to be young teenagers, the particular time was sort of a running joke for those who grew up in Phenix whenever someone from another town happened to be there when the lights went out.

“You mean 10:15,” someone would say.

“No,” we would reply. “Dexter set it for 10:16. Check your watch. 10:16 on the money.”

On a daily basis, during dinner time, my mom would stick her head out the front door and yell, “Jeff! Time to eat.” And I would do one of two things: At the end of the game, I’d run home, grab my plate, and eat at the basketball court in between games or when the ball rolled down the hill and there was a stoppage in play, or I’d yell back, “I’ll eat at 10:16.”

If you were to drive by the basketball court in Phenix, to the passerby it wouldn’t seem like much. Not back then, not now. The stranger to this world might see but a cracked blacktop with two wooden backboards and rusted red rims on opposite ends. To us, however, it is where our childhood was birthed. Where lifelong friendships were formed. It’s where our shadows still exist in another dimension, playing a game of two-on-two to 50, win by four. Check.

About the structure of the story. This story isn’t meant to be a linear work, nor is it meant to be a [quote] “cancer story.” It is a quilt of sorts, patched together at times with vignettes.

From the french word meaning “little vine,” a vignette is a literary device that is neither plot nor full narrative description that is employed to present a particular scene or create a descriptive passage, allowing the author to remember a memory visually and sensually without necessarily unpacking the full ‘why’ behind the scene or passage. An example of this you will see in WHEN THE LIGHTS GO OUT is the “train tracks scene.”

While part of the story focuses on Jeremiah’s diagnosis, childhood memories are interwoven to bring attention to what was, what is, and will always be the most important takeaway: that cancer can destroy a person’s immune system and can even take him or her away from us physically forever, but it cannot take away our memories, our friendships, or our love.

Part I focuses on the original diagnosis. Part II’s origins are with the return of the tumor. Part III is the aftermath.

This isn’t a biography. WHEN THE LIGHTS GO OUT AT 10:16 isn’t a biography—not of Jeremiah, not of me. It is a coming-of-age memoir that comes from my perspective; and I think this is important to note. I say this because I can only tell this story from my point of view. I cannot go into detail all of the results of Jeremiah’s tests or every fine detail of what Jeremiah thought or experienced as he battled brain cancer. Much of what Jeremiah went through was very personal that only he knew or his family privy to. I only know what I know or what he or his family shared with me.

The personal aspect of cancer, however, I can understand to a degree—at least from the perspective of a family member, specifically as a son who has seen his own dad stricken with stage IV appendiceal cancer, and then again, ten years later, with acute myelogenous leukemia.

There is a scene early on in the story when Jeremiah has the initial seizure while at work. Being that I’m not an accountant—that’s a truer statement if I’ve ever heard one—and I wasn’t with Jeremiah when the seizure took place, I drew upon the only other experience I had when someone seized.

When I was in sixth grade in Ms. Bates’ class at Central Middle School in Charlotte Court House, Virginia, I had a classmate named Priscilla.* It wasn’t uncommon for Priscilla to have a seizure while in class. Another of my classmates, Keith Hatcher, always seemed to be the first on the floor to help her. He’d prop her up and keep Priscilla from banging her head on any of the desks or from biting into her tongue.

Occasionally, out of the blue, I think of this time in sixth grade and how heroic Keith was despite being so young—as young as the rest of us who stood by perplexed and frozen, not knowing what to do.

When I sent Jeremiah the story when his cancer returned in July 2006, I prefaced my letter to him by saying that I knew that this scene, in particular, may not be accurate, that I had written it based on my experience in seeing Priscilla having a seizure all those years ago in sixth grade. Jeremiah’s depiction in this scene was largely a mirror image of how Priscilla acted when a seizure came on.

Jeremiah responded in a very Jeremiah way, by saying it was okay, that he didn’t care, and to “leave it in.” He went on to say jokingly that he had no idea what happened anyway because he had blacked out.

*Sadly, Priscilla was later diagnosed with and died from a brain tumor

Speak, memory. Memoir is defined as a biography written from personal knowledge of one’s memory of certain events or people, particularly one’s own. I tend to think of memoir in a slightly different manner, which is to say that memoir investigates life’s universal themes under the guise of one’s memory.

Even now, years later, I carry fond memories of Jeremiah with me everywhere I go — and I can say, with certainty, that many of his friends and family still do as well.

I learned a great deal from this unfortunate experience: about myself, about friendship, love, loss, the power of memory. And, I hope the words you read capture this.

When I began writing When the Lights Go Out at 10:16, I never intended for it to get out. I never intended for it to be an actual story in the first place. It began as a single paragraph journal entry in a green notebook I used to keep in my car in case a poem came along unexpectedly.

The weight of Jeremiah’s diagnosis I did not comprehend at the time.

We were young.

We were invincible.

Death nor disease nor malady could touch us.

He’d beat this thing — whatever it was that had taken up residence in his brain matter.

We’d all live happily ever after — THE END.

But sometimes life has other plans despite our own.

 

Chapter 1
The Ghosts of Childhood

July 2003

It was 11:30 p.m. on a Friday night as I sat alone in my car at the basketball court. The lights had already gone out at 10:16, like clockwork, as they had for years.

The hummingbird moths had vacated the area over an hour before, no longer dancing atop the wooden guardians that stood along the edge of half court. The crickets crept into my consciousness playing their nighttime lullabies, as the old streetlight next to the stop sign that no one ever stopped at flickered. The light shone bright, then darkened.

The engine of my car was silent, the night air thin as I peered down the hillside leading to the basketball court. A story began to tell itself as I stared at the blacktop’s deep-rooted cracks that had opened up more and more as each year passed.

At that moment, I began to see and hear the ghosts of my childhood. These images were visible as if at hand only yesterday, and they winked one after the other in my mind’s eye like white stars sewn into the black velvet of the summer’s night sky.

“You only get two shots,” a child’s voice called into the night. “Don’t choke. If you miss the second, you have to go . . . all . . . the way . . . BACK . . . to Virginia.”

“I won’t,” another child’s voice said. “There’s some paper and a pen on the top of the microwave in my house if you’d like to take notes.”

The thin, lanky figure stepped to a chink in the gray-black pavement that opened like the veins of a broken waterway, spilling horizontally across the basketball court. He bent his knees. His eyes searched for a direct line to the back of the rusted hoop, and he released a jump shot. The flick of his wrist made a popping sound as his fingers pointed straight ahead. Textbook release.

The basketball found its peak then fell downward from the sky…

He stepped to the next marker.

Each open crack in the blacktop marked a different city, a different state, a different destination we sought to go leaving this small town behind. Only one of us had accomplished the feat of going Around the World in sixteen shots or less without missing consecutive field goals. If anyone would ever escape, it would be him.

“Is the bank open today? Oh, I believe it is.”

And the basketball kissed the side of the backboard.

“You still have time,” the voice said. “Notebook and pen is on top of the microwave.”

I turned my head to the right. A slight crick in my neck forced my body to carry out the rest of the motion. A row of pine trees loomed in the foreground.

Pillars of time.

In the background stood the house where Jeremiah had grown up. Though the colors of his home had fled with dusk, I knew the shades and tints as if it were my own: the siding the color of eggshells, the shutters a shade of maroon. I turned back and once again found my concentration at the base of the hillside, staring at the grayish-black pavement of the basketball court where so many memories of ours had been birthed since childhood. I bore witness to infantile and adolescent infractions long forgotten; or, so I had thought.

Footsteps pattered.

The sound of laughter and youthful banter went on endlessly.

Acorns and walnuts swarmed the air like a plague of locusts.

The cogent stature of childhood was intact—be it the memory of my friends and I as barefooted seven-and eight-year-olds pedaling mercilessly with scuffed up and scarred shins and shoeless feet; or, as ten-and eleven-year-olds shooting off the hillside that lay adjacent to the swimming pool on a wooden Radio Flyer sled in January, the metal runners sometimes veering off-course to the right into the rusted barbed wire fence of Bobby Canada’s cow pasture that never seemed to cut a single soul.

Not a memory had escaped me.

And then I began to cry.

 

Chapter 2
Welcome to Phenix: A Nice Place to Live

There used to be a sign as you entered town that read in a big bold font, “Welcome to Phenix, Virginia: A Nice Place to Live.” When I was in high school, this sign hung above my headboard in my bedroom until one night, around 3 a.m., it came crashing down on me as I slept.

If you were a Charlotte County cop or state police in the mid-to-late 90s, you may be thinking I stole this sign.1 While me stealing the sign may fit the image of the green haired, hard-nosed criminal for which I was portrayed — I’m not saying my appearance helped matters — I’m sorry to tell you, I didn’t steal this sign or anything else I was accused of stealing or destroying during this time. I saw the “Welcome to Phenix” sign uprooted from the ground, displaced to make way for the new sign, laying on its side behind the municipal building in front of my house, and my dad asked the mayor at the time if I could have it, and he obliged.

Here’s the thing. Even though when I grew up I left Phenix behind, Phenix, to pause for a sentimental moment, has always held a special place in my heart — more than simple nostalgia provides. It’s hard to describe really.

James Joyce, Irish novelist and author of Ulysses, considered the greatest novel in the English language by Modern Library, said it best when he said of his hometown, “When I die, Dublin will be written in my heart.”

And so, for me, as it was Joyce, “When I die, Phenix will be written in my heart.” It’s who I am, as much as the hair on my head or the blue in my eyes.

Does that make sense? How about instead I pluck a scene from a somewhat more modern equivalent as an example? There’s a moment in the film Orange County, starring Colin Hanks and Jack Black, when the lead character, an aspiring writer named Shaun Brumder (played by Colin Hanks), finally gets his wish: escape from Orange County by way of acceptance into Stanford University.

But here’s the thing: Shaun makes the decision to do the exact opposite of what he has hoped to achieve the entire narrative up to this point. He decides to stay in Orange County. Standing before his dysfunctional family at the resolution of the film, Shaun says:

I was just up in my room thinking about Faulkner, and wondering, if he’d left the south, would he have ever written Light in August? Or what if James Joyce had left Ireland? I mean, he did leave Ireland, but not in his heart. See what I’m getting at?

In a scene just moments before, Shaun tracks down his hero, the writer Marcus Skinner. It is Skinner who inspired Shaun to become a writer in the first place. After the sudden death of one of his close friends, Shaun sits on the beaches of Orange County considering what it all means (life, death, and the great beyond). There, he finds Skinner’s book poking out of the sand next to him, and begins reading it.

Flash forward to when Shaun, who had hoped to study under the famed writer while at Stanford, finally meets Skinner in person.

The following dialogue ensues:

Shaun: I want to be a good writer, Mr. Skinner, but I’m just afraid that if I don’t get out of Orange County, it’s never going to happen.

Marcus Skinner: Don’t be afraid of that. You are a good writer. And every good writer has a conflicted relationship with the place where he grew up. Joyce, Faulkner, Tolstoy. And that’s what I remember loving about your story. It’s very conflicted. At the beginning, you think these people are doomed [. . .] headed for disaster. Then, as you read on, you see that there exists, beneath the surface, these very real connections, these deep relationships . . . that there’s still hope. Was that the message you were trying for?

Like the real life Joyce or the fictional Shaun Brumder, my hometown is ingrained in me, whether I am physically there or physically elsewhere, as are the deep relationships from my time in this place. Just as the curls in my hair may not show until they’ve grown a certain length, Phenix sits in the roots of who I am no matter the zip code.

Then and Now: A Brief History of Phenix, Virginia

Not to sound all back in my day about it, but Phenix, Virginia, was different back then than it is now. The likely culprit: technology. One of the biggest observations I continue to see whenever I visit home is how empty the streets are of kids. It’s like they no longer exist, as if childhood is boarded up inside the walls of one- and two-story homes, glowing screens having replaced bicycles and basketballs and games of backyard football.

Growing up, my friends and I roamed the streets and woods and everywhere in between like some sort of youthful gang, only returning home when the lights went out at the basketball court or when our parents yelled out the door it was time to eat. Nowadays, nada. No kids, no teenagers, no young adults anywhere in sight — at least that I see.

But in the 1980’s and 90’s, the contrast couldn’t be more dissimilar.

So, it’s hard to tell a story and cast Phenix as merely a simple setting where a story takes place. Phenix, all 1.158 square miles of it, is more than setting. Phenix is a character in this yarn I’m about to tell — and it’s important I say that up front because you can’t understand the rest of us characters without first understanding a little bit about a small town in southern Virginia known as Phenix, in Charlotte County, Virginia — a place most travelers through would miss with the blink of an eye while traversing down Highway 40 or 727 in route to whatever destination they may be headed.

The mean streets of Phenix, Virginia

Main Location: Phenix, Virginia
Country: United States
State: Virginia
County: Charlotte
Area: 1.158 square miles
Population: 226 (2010 census)2
Median family income: $34,5833
Fun Fact: There isn’t a single stoplight in Phenix (not then, not now), and until very recently, there also wasn’t a single stoplight in all of Charlotte County4

A portion of the following text (“History of Phenix, Virginia”) was summarized from a write-up by one of my former neighbors who is now deceased, Ms. Sara Gilliam and her husband Ned, owners of one of the fattest basset hounds the world has ever known named Polly.

Phenix began as a hog lot owned by S.C. Daniel in 1905. Then, in 1906, in anticipation of the Virginian railroad being constructed and passing through Charlotte County, a group of businessmen from the Home Development Company from nearby Farmville, Virginia, bought up land. By 1908, Phenix was surveyed and established with streets laid out and sold to local businessmen to start new enterprises within the town’s limits. A town was born.

Eyeing potential profits from the coming railroad, sawmills came to town, as did tobacco warehouses, including S.C. Chamberlyne’s Leaf Tobacco Company, a large tobacco factory built in 1911. Traveling medicine shows came by railcar entertaining the townspeople for two weeks at a time before hitting the rails again. A school was built. A livestock market opened. A volunteer fire department was established.

It’s strange to think of Phenix as a place of opportunity—even on a small scale. Yet, seventy five years before I was born, it was just that. Structural remnants of these bygone opportunities existed in my youth. At the ball field, the feed tower loomed, its rickety metal ladder leading up high that us kids climbed as our dads tried to re-create their own glory days, playing in weekend softball tournaments. Once up high, the square black pool at the base of the ladder reflected below and became the recipient of our spit as the black water rippled to the sides.

The livestock market was a happening place on the weekends, and though we didn’t own any cattle or other farm animals, I went here often with my dad. Thirty odd years later, I can still smell the manure as vividly as back then. Mmmm!

It was also a place of potential peril we were advised as we stood next to the hog pin one Saturday morning before an auction was to take place.

“They’ll bite off your toes,” Robbie’s mom Joanne told us of the hogs. “Especially the babies.”

We all stepped back a few inches, continuing to peer over the rounded red gate of the pin, our toes curled under the balls of our feet tucked in our shoes.

Even in my teenage years, the loft of the axe handle factory still existed, an unsound structure if there ever was one, transforming into a scene of cigarette smoking and other foolishness hidden from our parents.

These structures none exist now, having been torn down due to their potential for insurance perils; but for many of us growing up in the 1980s, if we close our eyes hard enough, we can still see the feed store next to the bank prior to its building expansion.

With all that said, there’s one central location that was constructed that was the hub for most memories of my youth: the basketball court.

The Court

In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, the basketball court in Phenix was always jammed pack, particularly on Sunday. Pick-up trucks and cars lined the hillside and there was overflow parking in the tiny football field up next to the road on the corner of Church Street and Charlotte. To call this patch of grass a “football field” is a bit of an overstatement, but when you’re a kid and of small stature in comparison to the running, jumping adults in the near distance, what was perhaps twenty five yards long felt one hundred yards and the equivalent of playing at Lambeau Field.

Blue jeans and flannel shirts and ratty white Reeboks adorned bodies that twisted in mid-air for a lay-up or a rebound ricocheted off the rim. Young women in short shorts and sundresses laid on the hillside and watched their boyfriends or young husbands. Inside Robbie Canada’s pick-up truck parked behind the near-end hoop, the NASCAR race blasted through the stereo’s speakers. When it came to the basketball court in Phenix, the names Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip were more revered than that of Michael Jordan or Larry Bird on Sunday afternoon. And, if ever there was a serious pile-up on turn whatever at the Darlington 500, a stoppage in play would ensue on the basketball court in Phenix hundreds of miles away until the debris was clear and the pace car returned to its rightful place on the sidelines, engines revved up, a new leader out front.

Rules of the game

The rules of the game were simple then — no blood, no foul — but if, while on defense, you did knowingly foul someone on an attempt that had a legitimate shot at falling, it was on you to let it be known. On offense, calling your own fouls was a big no-no, and signaling “and one” after you banked a layup off the backboard was about as common during those days as seeing a purple cheetah grazing in a cow pasture. Getting bumped and banged around was as much a part of the game as the nylon netting on the rusted rim ten feet above. Finishing in contact or getting your shot off without ending up flat on your back (think Kevin McHale clotheslining Kurt Rambis during the 1984 NBA Finals, Celtics vs Lakers), is perhaps the reason us kids, who learned how to play basketball playing with adults, grew to have our own patented shots:

  • Jeremiah Hamlett’s stop and pop pull-up jumper
  • Kevin Hancock’s running left handed floater in traffic
  • Robbie Hancock’s long range skyhook ala Kareem
  • Jay Tucker’s interior mini hook shot
  • Brandon Tucker’s strong finishes at the rim5
  • My own acrobatic finishes around the rim, often leading with my knee6

There were other patented moves displayed on the court during this bygone era, including Tim Trent’s body twisting, right arm outstretched hanging lay-ups, Steve Dunn’s left handed threes despite Steve being a righty, Michael Styers’ milkshake shot from just below half court7, Billy Mann’s artful rebounding prowess by using his belly to box out opponents for an easy putback, and Eddie Brinkley’s Superman layup from the foul line. Perhaps the most famous of all was Jeff Canada’s “Yo Mama” shot, which was an early rendition of a recent viral video like so:

In Phenix, though we had a full-court to play on, we played half-court. On Sunday afternoons, both sides of the court featured games due to the sheer number of people that came out. All other days, the far end of the court nearest the pool hill was the predominant side played on — large oak trees and grazing cows from Bobby Canada’s cow pasture the background in the immediate distance. Four-on-four was customary, but three-on-three would do if Sunday attendance was limited. On very rare occasions would a full-court game be played.

Just as with any true basketball game, if you scored a point, the other team received the ball in return. “Make it, Take It,” was not the standard format in Phenix. “Keysville Rules” we called “Make It, Take It.” If you want to play “Make It, Take It,” go to Keysville. Otherwise, score on offense, and then ready yourself to play defense. All games were played to fifty, win by four. Winner stays on, loser tucks his tail while a new team comes on in an attempt to dethrone the champ.

There was no three point line until the mid-1990’s when Jeremiah took a line of string and a can of white spray paint from his dad’s garage and sprayed one on one fateful Saturday morning. Thankfully, because the line looked like it was professionally done, Dexter Andrews, chief party responsible for the maintenance of Phenix Recreation Association, didn’t give us any grief about the spray paint.

And while the adults dominated the landscape each and every Sunday, it was us kids who dominated the blacktop the remaining days of the week; basketball was the predominant game, but there, too, we recreated NASCAR races on our bicycles using the court as a speedway and tackle basketball on the snow covered blacktop in the winter. It is where other games of our own creation were played, such as the classic Phenix sport of tennis ball. Tennis ball was a simple game — essentially baseball without a baseball, replaced with a tennis ball, which you had permission to beam at your friends’ head or body as he rounded the bases after cracking the ball toward Phenix Methodist.

The basketball court was where punches were thrown and lifelong friendships and memories were born. In short, the basketball court in Phenix (or simply the court, as us kids called it) was our home away from home — a sanctuary of youth.

Years ago, while reviewing Rabbit, Run by John Updike for Brad Listi’s online arts and culture magazine, The Nervous Breakdown, I found in what I read of Updike’s classic American novel and in the review I wrote a similarity to my own youth and that of my childhood friends. I wrote:

He was once that boy there in the green knit stocking cap pushed over his ears, “the natural. The way [the boy] moves sideways without taking any steps, gliding on a blessing: you can tell. The way [the boy] waits before he moves.”

The basketball skips off the front of the rim, bounces away from the children, rolls to his feet, and stops. Rabbit bends down in his business suit and lifts the ball to chest level. He has almost forgotten what the leather feels like, “that old stretched-leather feeling makes his whole body go taut, gives his arms wings,” what it smells like. The cigarette smoke fills his lungs and he breathes out, flicking the cigarette to the ground, crushing it. He massages the basketball like a sore muscle with two hands, sets his feet, displacing loose pebbles underneath foot, squares his shoulders, and follows through. The ball reaches its highest point and cambers down from the sky and through the nylon net. He looks at the boys in the ice plant yard, sullen. “They have not forgotten him: worse, they never heard of him.”

Here’s to not forgetting; or worse, never knowing who those kids were in the first place.

Chapter 3
Robbie, Junior

Weighted down by old notebooks and pictures in the upstairs closet of my childhood bedroom lays a child’s journal given to me one year as a Christmas present. The questions are capitalized in bold. The answers follow underneath on a long straight line written by a No. 2 pencil that, as the years have passed, has all but faded.

WHAT HOBBY DO YOU ENJOY DOING AFTER SCHOOL?
I like to play basketball and baseball and ride my bike at the court.

WHO IS YOUR BEST FRIEND?
My best friend is Robbie Hunter Hancock, Jr.

No matter how faint the pencil mark in my response has become over time, the answers might as well be written in black ink or etched in stone.

To pause for a moment on Robbie’s name. Most everyone calls Robbie “Rob,” and that is indeed what he goes by. I’m likely in the one percentile of people that don’t call him Rob, and it probably drives him a little crazy I also don’t, but I can’t. He’s Robbie to me — always has been, always will be — just as my mom is Mama. I told him once (when we were drunk) when he started calling me Jeffy that I just can’t bring myself to call him Rob. It’s a fine name, but it seems artificial coming from my lips due to our long standing relationship drawing from the time we still both shit our diapers.

Robbie is my second cousin, a little more than a year and a half older than me. His grandmother, Elner, my Papa Hamlett’s sister and my great aunt. Though our blood was inextricably linked through kin, there is more to it than that. I have many cousins, but there is only one Robbie; and our entangled paths since our days of crawling on all fours is less about the blood in our veins, and more about the shared blood spilled on a common soil. It is a shared history of purple bruises turned green on shins and small rocks caught in scraped palms. We pushed each other down, and we picked each other up. Then we pushed each other down again, often Robbie pushing harder.

Robbie is the first real friend I ever knew.

Whatever Robbie did I wanted to do. Whatever shoes his parents bought him (white, black, and green Nike Air Flights), I pleaded for my mom to buy me for the upcoming school year — because for Robbie to wear them, meant they were, in my eyes, the epitome of cool. And, on my checklist of daily activities, being cool like Robbie was at the top of the list.

In a sense, Robbie was my childhood idol, even more so than Cal Ripken, Jr., Scottie Pippen, Drazen Petrovic, or Dennis Rodman — and need I not forget, Daffy Duck.

Robbie had dark brown hair, so dark it was almost black, and a slim figure like the rest of us in Phenix. Blame metabolism for our perpetual skinniness or genetic DNA. I blame the Phenix water supply, and for more than just the occasional bout of nausea and diarrhea. I’ll always blame the water.

Robbie’s pituitary gland always seemed a few years ahead of everyone else’s, and every time it looked as though the rest of us were just about to catch up in height, his body would sense the competition and thus trigger an internal mechanism to challenge this notion and add on a few extra inches to defeat our cause.

For me to attempt to catch Robbie in height was a futile wish never to come true until years and years later. Yet, I still hung upside down on the pull-up bar in the upstairs hallway my dad had installed, hoping and praying the gravitational pull of my acrobatics would stretch my limbs, only for the bar eventually to fall down with me hanging upside down like a bat, and by God’s good grace alone not breaking an arm, collarbone, or my neck.

I looked up to Robbie, quite literally, for the better part of my adolescent life until I finally surpassed him in height at the end of our teenage years.

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Endnotes

  1. No offense, and I hold no grudges, but you guys lived at my house for two straight summers based solely on hearsay.
  2. I can tell you now that 226 people do not live in Phenix, unless you count the headstones of the dead. This 226 census number includes neighboring unincorporated towns such as Bethel, Aspen, and Old Well which stretch three to fifteen miles away
  3. It’s hard to fathom how low this is. In comparison, the median family income across the Commonwealth of Virginia is twice that at $71,535.
  4. Thanks to my friend Whitney for ruining the “no stoplight in Charlotte County even today” proclamation. She informed me there is, indeed, a stoplight in Charlotte County now. Only one, but still.
  5. I’m not sure if Brandon ever realized how much he could glide through the air. Had he wanted, he could have legitimately played on the high school basketball team. He could take intense contact and still finish against bigger, stronger players.
  6. The whole leading with my knee while in air part of my game resulted in more than one dust-up with my cousin Robbie who often was the recipient of my knee in his chest.
  7. The “milkshake shot” so named because Michael had bought a milkshake from B&D Mart before coming to play, sat it at half-court during a game, only for the ball to bounce back toward his milkshake on the court, thus knocking it over. Pissed, Michael slung the milkshake covered basketball up toward the rim and made it. Then yelled, “Milkshake, baby!