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And now, your weekly selection to read along with, from the Problematic Virtue:
Despite the wheezing, coughing, and complete inability to catch his breath, they had played only five minutes. Alex and Wiles had gone to the court to shoot hoops after Wiles had launched on an angry tirade about the sedentary lifestyle. He said he needed a break from Xbox and bong hits. Alex quite liked Xbox and bong hits, but did as Wiles wished.
Alex played point guard on his middle school basketball team and led his team to the State Championships in seventh grade despite never trying exceptionally hard, but today he stepped on the court for the first time in years. He had shed his two long-sleeve shirts, and now stripped down to his undershirt and sweatpants.
“You’re dripping with sweat, Britton,” Wiles said. “When was the last time you got out and got some exercise?”
“I hooked up with that brunette with the glasses from the bar the other night after you guys left,” he said. “That was a real workout. Working out my fuck-muscle, the most important one in the body. That’s real game, not like this weak-ass game you’re trying to bring against me out here today.” He did not actually hook up with the brunette with the glasses, and apart from snowboarding once this season, he had not exercised in a long time.
“Oh, is that right? And here I thought we were just warming up. Well, come on then, let’s see it, son,” Wiles said, hunkering down and pushing up his sleeves. “You talk lots of shit, so let’s do this.”
Alex dribbled twice, and then rolled left around Wiles, driving straight to the hoop. Wiles recovered quickly enough to give Alex a little bump from the side as he released the ball, causing Alex to bank a shot that went nowhere near the hoop.
“Oh, that’s embarrassing. I’ll bet you weren’t expecting that. How does it make you feel?” Wiles said, giving Alex a round of slow-clapping.
“That’s a foul, dude.” Alex trudged after the ball and tossed it to Wiles. They faced off. Alex struggled to catch his breath, which made him lightheaded. Wiles looked right, faked left, then spun right and rushed past Alex for the layup. Alex lumbered after the ball, grunting. Two dribbles in, he spotted up for a jumper when Wiles just grabbed the ball right out of his hands.
Wiles dribbled, and then held the ball, stopping play. He inspected the wheezing Alex. “Brian done anything weird lately? Just, odd, unusual stuff. Had anybody over you don’t recognize?”
“How would I know? He’s never at home anymore.”
“Does he look at you and then leave the room when he gets a phone call?”
“No, I told you, dude, I hardly ever see the guy. Maybe ten minutes a day. When I do see him, he’s bitching about this thing or that thing, or just moping about his brother running away.”
Then Wiles said something unusual.
“Jimmy Connelly? He didn’t run away. I know exactly where he is.”
Alex did not know how to interpret this statement. Wiles never offered insight into anything unless it served his own purposes. This must have been a slip of the tongue, unless he wanted Alex to know something. Alex had accepted Brian’s reasoning behind his brother’s disappearance, but Wiles’ seemingly offhanded remark now opened a line of doubt.
What does Wiles know?
Wiles dismissively waved a hand. “Don’t worry about it,” he said. “Forget I said that. You need to keep that shit between us.”
Alex decided to push the comment out of his mind and unsuccessfully attempted to bat the ball out of Wiles’ hand. Wiles yanked the ball out of reach just in time, attempting to spin past, but Alex stayed with Wiles all the way to the basket. Wiles pushed him back to create some space, then tear-dropped a fadeaway shot that arced over Alex’s head and swished right into the basket.
“That’s another foul, dude. You can’t push off on me like that.”
Wiles charged within striking distance. His face, inches from Alex’s face. “You better stop calling fouls on me. Quit whining like a little bitch. I always do whatever it takes to win. You need to learn that shit and start acting like a man.”
Wiles’ sudden, harsh castigation of Alex awakened a twinge of guilt for the secret he carried. The decision about whether or not to tell Wiles had not been an easy one. He wanted to be a man that Wiles could count on, but regardless of how stupid Brian had been to sleep with Megan, he probably did not deserve the punishment he would get from Wiles if (when) he found out. Or perhaps Brian deserved it… Alex kept changing his mind.
“About Brian, can you do me a favor and keep an eye on him? No big deal. Just let me know if he does anything strange.”
“Yeah, yeah, sure,” Alex said as he knelt, coughing, an irritation rising up in his lungs and throat. Each violent outburst resulted in tiny blood splatters on the pavement.
Wiles came in closer for a look. “That’s not good.”
“I’m fine. I’m getting used to hacking up chunks of things.”
“You gotta take care of yourself, son. Cut out all that Taco Bell and eat some vegetables and shit. Look at me, I party like a rock star, but I’m out here going all Kobe Bryant on you on this court.”
Alex walked to the basketball and picked it up. He dribbled it a few times. Each time the ball rose, he pushed down on it, and it touched the ground then bounced back up into his hand, just as expected.
Action and reaction. Wiles takes care of me. How can I keep the truth from him like this?
He had a sudden urge to tell Wiles what he knew. The secret pressed down on him like a support beam ready to buckle under the pressure of a collapsing building. “There’s something you should probably know.”
“What is it? Let me guess, you just found your game.”
Alex scrutinized the basketball, his fingertips turning white as they gripped the dimpled rubber.
I should tell him. Wiles needs to know if his brother’s wife is running around on his brother. I’d like to know, wouldn’t I? I’d want to know if the girl I shared a house with was a cheating slut. But if I do that, then what happens to Brian?
The scenarios and prospective outcomes overwhelmed him so he tabled any further decisions until he could give this some more thought. He relaxed his grip on the ball and faked a pale smile. “It’s nothing. Don’t worry about it. You wanna see the game? I’ve just been warming up so far. Now it’s time to get real.”
“That’s what I’m talking about. Bring it, then.”
Alex drove his Jeep into the spacious alley behind 24-Hour Fitness on Baseline Street. He thought it a strange place to meet, but Wiles had insisted. On a closed dumpster, the man who must be Alex’s contact sat, swinging his legs and hitting the dumpster with his heels. Bang bang. It seemed quite a powerful clamor for someone supposedly doing a drug deal.
Alex exited his car and called out to the man. “Are you Theo?”
The guy waved at him, beckoning Alex forward, still banging his heels.
“Could you make any more noise?” Alex said, looking around. With all of Wiles’ castigations about his own carelessness, Alex could not believe the level of thoughtlessness his contact displayed.
Theo jumped down from the dumpster and approached Alex. Theo was a small, squatty Hispanic man with beady eyes and a pronounced underbite. Alex thought he looked like a bulldog. “Don’t worry about it, homes. Ain’t nobody back here. Make all the noise we want. What you got for me?”
“I only brought a teener. Sorry, but that’s all I got at the moment.”
Theo’s beady eyes turned even beadier. “Supposed to bring an ounce, not a fucking sixteenth. What can I do with that? Can’t split that up for shit. Barely get high off that.”
“Are you joking? This is the real deal. It hasn’t been stepped on or anything. You can cut it as much as you want. If you can’t get high off a sixteenth, then I don’t know what kind of shit you were putting up your nose before, but–”
“It’s a saying, guy. Don’t mean it for real.” Theo put a hand against his face, and tapped a finger against his cheek. Quite contemplative. “Alright then, let me see it.”
Alex produced the little baggie of yellow powder. Theo flicked at with a finger. “You shitting me? That’s not even a teener. Don’t know what you’re trying to pull, but Miguel gonna kick my ass if I bring back some bullshit like this.”
Miguel? Wiles habitually left out key bits of information such as that, and Alex now realized the purpose of this meeting. For as much shit as Wiles talked about Miguel and his crew, they sure did a lot of business together. Made no sense to Alex. He would not allow people he disliked in his circles, if he were making the decisions. “Look, dude, you didn’t get me out here for nothing. You wanted some crystal, here it is. Can we just do this? I need to get home and I don’t want to stand out here, fucking with you all day long.”
Theo moved back, and eased his hand into his pocket, where it remained. Gun? Knife? Alex did not take his eyes off that pocket.
“That’s it. We done here. I’m not interested, so I ain’t got no use for you no more. Go run on back to Wiles,” Theo said.
It would have been easy for Alex to pack it up, turn around, and get into his Jeep. However, something about the smug little expression on this guy’s rotund face and his slimy condescension filled Alex with ire. He knew he had to make a choice. He did not want to start a fight, but had no desire to look like a chump, either.
“No. You’re going to give me the cash, and I’m going to give you this meth. That’s what we came out here for, now let’s just do it. I’m not leaving empty-handed.”
“You deaf, little man? I said get back in your car, and leave.”
Little man. Alex probably had thirty pounds on this squatty bulldog. For several seconds, neither said or did anything. Alex stood firm, unwilling to back down first. Theo jerked and revealed his hand, now gripping a roll of quarters. Alex instantly reacted and jabbed Theo in the mouth. Theo took a step back, his free hand rushing to his face, as some blood dribbled down his fingers. Alex balled his fits and waited for Theo to do something. Theo reared back to dive at Alex, but Theo telegraphed his move and Alex easily sidestepped him. As the bulldog lunged, Alex smacked him on the back of the head. Theo hit the pavement face-first.
Alex bounced around with his fists raised, like a boxer ready for more, but Theo did not get up. He spat blood on the ground. Alex leaned over him, gloating. “Punk bitch,” he said and then walked away.
“That was a big mistake,” Theo yelled after him. “Me and my boys are not people you want to fuck with.”
Alex, full of adrenaline, hopped into his Jeep, lit up a cigarette and started the car. Victorious. Not counting the night he pushed Brian up against the wall, this had been his first-ever fight.