Barely Missing Everything
CHAPTER JUAN (CHAPTER ONE)
Juan Ramos was dead. His game stiff and clumsy from the jump. It was January, the season already beyond the halfway point, and every game had been part of a parade of embarrassments. The air inside the gym hung thick and sour, the ventilation system crapping out before tip-off and making each breath like swallowing a hard-boiled egg. Juan stood at the edge of the huddle as Coach Paul ripped the team for not playing smarter. The Austin Panthers’ point guard stood doubled over and tried to catch his breath. He had plunged the team into a hole after only five minutes, turning the ball over twice in a row and going 0-for-5 from the field.
“Ramos, take a seat,” Coach Paul yelled, mean mugging him from the middle of the huddle. “You’re showing no heart out there.”
“Whatever,” Juan said as he took a seat on the bench.
Heart was never going to matter. The game had swirled down the toilet the moment Juan’s mother, Fabi, and her boyfriend, Ruben, strolled inside the gym during layup drills, the clicking of Fabi’s high heels echoing across the Panther Athletic Center—the PAC—and inside Juan’s head, causing his attention to pinball from defensive assignments and running the offense to wondering why his má had showed at the game in the first place. A thing she never did.
Dressed in a pair of tight jeans and a too-small Austin Panthers T-shirt, her wrists spangled with bracelets, his mother pointed to a pair of empty seats behind the Panther bench, her fingernails long and glossy red. Like she’d wanted, Fabi had the attention of every man in the PAC, and once seated, the mesmerized men went from watching her to sizing up Ruben, collectively wondering how a goofy motherfucker like him had landed a woman like Fabi. He was shorter than Fabi by more than a few inches and wore a cowboy hat that dwarfed his head. His blue jeans had creases ironed down the middle of the legs, and he wore his Austin Panthers T-shirt over a long-sleeved, button-down shirt. Of course, Juan didn’t have to wonder. Ruben only seemed like a sucker. He was the owner of EZ Motors, a used-car lot that made a killing selling shitty rides to Fort Bliss soldiers and people with even shittier credit. He was a predator, and unfortunately Fabi had “easy prey” written all over her.
The Panthers were also easy kills. All they had going
for them was Juan, the best player on the worst team in 4A Region 1, District 1. And with him playing like a scrub, they had no chance of winning. It was Juan’s senior year, but it had begun without letters from college recruiters—even though he’d been All-District the past two seasons—leaving him to wonder just what exactly he was going to do after graduation, if he even made it that far. His grades were garbage, and Mr. Rosales, his guidance counselor, had told him before the start of the semester he’d be better off learning a trade than worrying about basketball or college.
With Juan on the bench, Derek Evans darted up and down the court, the EPHS Tigers’ point guard extending the lead in two quick possessions. The score: 20–0. Juan had made the mistake of playing too aggressively against Evans. On defense he’d reached for steals, slapping Evans across the arms and earning a cheap foul. On offense Juan tried too much isolation, ignoring wide-open teammates and taking terrible shots. Evans was a senior, too; a guard with speed and court vision that had made recruiters take notice. Coach Paul told Juan before the game that Evans was peaking at just the right time. That timing was absolutely everything. Timing and not being a five-foot-eight Mexican.
The Panthers finally got on the board after almost ten minutes, junior guard Eddie Duran hitting a three in relief of Juan. Coach Paul walked to the end of the bench and sat beside Juan. Juan tried to watch the game but couldn’t
concentrate. The back doors to the gym had been propped open, but the cold breeze only made things worse. Able to smell his own sweat on his undershirt and damp uniform, he turned queasy. Coach Paul slapped him on the back and whispered, “Tell me when you’re ready to quit acting like a spoiled diva and play some ball? That’s all I’m asking.” He strolled back to the head of the bench, raising his voice so anyone who wanted to hear him could. “Just give me a thumbs-up or something, Juanito. Pretend you have some pride.”
Lack of pride wasn’t Juan’s problem. All the time he spent working on his game, the dribble and passing drills, running stadiums and wind sprints and suicides, hours working on his shot, his form and follow-through, endless weight lifting and push-ups and even yoga, were all done because of pride. There was a little over a month left in the season, and while riding the pine, the exact kind of trouble facing Juan was now becoming clear. With his last semester’s grades as bad as the night’s stat line, there was a chance he’d have to make up classes come summer—or worse, could miss graduation altogether. And what kind of gigs could he land if he even managed to graduate? Would the Border Patrol hire a Mexican who’d managed to fail Spanish? Who sucked at math and science and English? He hoped not, even if they paid like $52,000 a year to start. And fuck working for those ICE motherfuckers.
Ignoring Coach Paul, Juan headed to the scorer’s table; he could hear Fabi cheering behind him: “You can do
it, mijo. Show that pendejo coach what you’re made of.” Juan’s belly felt like it was filling with air, sharp pains jabbing his sides. It was the same feeling he used to get before games his freshman year, right before he puked into trash cans. Back then Juan had been nervous about playing organized ball, worried his aggressive style wouldn’t translate from the playground. Coach Paul was always in his ear, telling him he needed to understand the game, learn when to be aggressive and when to throttle back. To manage the game and not gamble on every play, but the Panthers didn’t have enough game to manage. Wanting to win, Juan took his chances, going hard after every loose ball, trying every tight pass and gambling on every contested shot, hoping the ball would bounce his way.
Juan kneeled at the scorer’s table. Coach Paul nodded at him and held three fingers in the air to remind Juan to play smart and not pick up another foul before the half; the game was not quite out of hand at 25–12. Juan understood, and checked in after Derek Evans had been fouled by Eddie Duran and was set to shoot free throws. Juan jogged onto center court as Eddie headed to the bench. Fabi leapt from her seat and waved her arms in the air. “Go, Juan! Beat some Tiger ass!” At a quick glance she could be mistaken for a student, her Panthers T-shirt knotted slightly above the waist, with more than a hint of exposed skin. The man sitting beside Fabi zeroed in on her chest, not caring that Ruben was staring him down or that Juan was now throwing up, doubled over and retching as everyone else
watched, groaning and then laughing as he ran from the gym.
By the second half the PAC had almost cleared out. Only bored parents remained, talking and ignoring the game. The Tigers were destroying the Panthers 64–33, the Panthers’ worst points beating of the year. So far the season had been mostly losses, the sole win coming on the road, in a tournament game played in Lubbock, Texas, against a team of gringos missing half their squad. Most of their starters had gone down with the shits before tip-off, a case of self-sabotage with bad mayo finding its way into their sandwiches before the game. Juan had scored twenty-five points in the first half alone, repeatedly blowing by an uncoordinated second-string point guard with nobody contesting him at the rim. The predominantly white crowd quickly turned hostile, chanting, “Build the wall! Build the wall!” before halftime. Coach Paul pulled Juan in the middle of the second half after noticing Juan being booed every time he touched the ball. He didn’t care—he’d just balled the best game of his life, draining thirty-foot jumpers that whipped the bottom of the net and dominating on D, anticipating dribble patterns and picking the pocket of the opposing point, firing down the opposite side of the court for layup after layup.
The Panthers’ bus was rocked after that game. Silhouettes emerged from behind the gymnasium, crashing rocks against the yellow siding, the hollow thunks echoing inside, the windows chipping and spiderwebbing across
the purpled tint. The team huddled between the seats of the bus as it quickly escaped, silent when Coach Paul told them they wouldn’t be staying for the rest of the tournament, Juan stunned that winning could feel so much worse than losing.
Now Juan stayed in the locker room as the Panthers took the court for the second half, telling Coach Paul he still felt sick even though he felt fine after spewing his guts—just, well, embarrassed. Fabi had been texting him, asking if he was okay, if he needed her, but Juan ignored the messages. The only reason Juan eventually returned to the bench was to keep Fabi from looking for him in the locker room. Coach Paul nodded approvingly as Juan took his seat, still dressed to play but having no intention of doing so. The ventilation at the PAC finally kicked on and he was able to breathe. Coach Paul probably thought Juan was showing some pride, braving his illness and supporting the team. Fabi had moved to the other end of the court, talking to the parents of the opposing squad, waving at him until he finally waved back.
Watching Má, looking like a forever teen over there, Juan began to wonder how life had been for her in high school. Fabi had also gone to Austin, at least until she became pregnant with him her sophomore year and dropped out. He imagined she’d been popular, but didn’t know that for sure. She didn’t have any best friends—at least none that he knew of. She was smart, getting her GED without taking any study classes, but maybe not that smart,
seeing as she still worked at the same bar that had been her first job at seventeen. He’d always assumed his father had gone to school with her—he wished Fabi had been the type to keep yearbooks. She didn’t hang photographs on the walls of the apartment or keep albums or have pictures on her phone aside from the cascade of selfies taken in front of the bathroom mirror. So many times Juan wanted to hold a yearbook in his hands, thumb through the glossy pages and maybe come across a familiar face. His own.
Whenever he brought up his father, though, she turned squirmy. When he’d been little, she’d tell him he didn’t need a dad, that it was them versus the world. He used to love that idea, but as he grew older, and learned their world often included random boyfriends, he began wondering who his old man could be. Why these other dudes were in his life but not his father. But Fabi always dodged his questions with shifty answers. It’s really complicated, mijo. I’ll tell you when you’re older. When you’ll understand. Juan didn’t get why she would hide this from him, like knowing a name would change the fact that he wasn’t around. Still, he never pressed too hard, seeing how panicked she became whenever he asked—always changing the subject and raising her voice as she spoke real fast, going from English to Spanish. He rarely asked at all now.
A hard whistle blow brought Juan’s attention back to the game. After spending the entire first half dominating, the Tigers now looked bored, even as they continued to dictate the game, setting down screens and crosscourt
picks, nonchalantly finding the open cutter who cruised to the basket for easy scores. Juan was glad he didn’t have to go back in—at least he got the chance to watch JD, his best friend since kindergarten, play.
JD Sanchez didn’t play often. He wasn’t the worst player on the team; considering how bad the team was, he could have taken any starting position, except for Juan’s, and the Panthers still would have lost the games it had by the same margins. The reason JD didn’t play was his attitude. He wasn’t the eager underdog Coach Paul wanted or needed him to be, the guy with less talent but lots of heart. The rah-rah guy. Instead JD openly criticized Coach’s play calling, renaming their offense the “Pick and Stroll,” and refusing to cut his hair when Coach suggested they do so for team unity, arguing that his locks were freedom of speech. He once told Coach Paul the only reason he’d joined the team was because he wanted to soak up his parents’ fair share of tax dollars, since he was sure none were being spent in the library—like he ever went. Juan knew JD was full of shit. He came to practice every day and spent almost as much time working on his game as Juan did. JD loved basketball, even if he hated the pressure of being on a team.
But tonight was the best JD had played all season. By Juan’s count JD scored ten points and ripped five rebounds, moving with a confidence Juan didn’t recognize. JD’s usual rebel camouflage didn’t work on the court. There was no amount of trash you could talk that would take the place of tough defense, no long hair to hide behind when you
were afraid to shoot the ball. Something had changed him recently, JD was playing looser than usual, playing better because of it. Juan wondered if JD would tell him what was happening or stay the same secretive dude he always was.
“¡Mijo! ¡Oyes, Juan! ¡Mijo! We’re going to meet you outside,” Fabi screamed from the bleachers. “Novio wants a cigarito. This game’s over anyways.”
The game clock showed two minutes left as Juan buried his face in his hands, everyone turning to look at him. Fabi and Ruben stepped down the hollow steps of the bleachers, her clicking heels again loud and unbearable. Juan kept his face buried, not wanting to see his teammates or players from the other team, coaches or random dudes in the stands turn their attention from him to his mom, their eyes burning on her ass as she short-stepped from the gym. Them slapping each other on the arm as she breezed by and agreeing they’d all smash that.
Juan remembered some of his má’s other “novios.” The manager of a nightclub who promised Fabi club dates where she could perform with the house band but never delivered. Another who wanted her to model for his furniture store but hired a former Budweiser girl instead. The lawyer who hooked her up with a free will. All these vatos bought Fabi clothes or jewelry; one pendejo got her a truck, a Mazda B2600 she still drove. And now there was Ruben “King of the Deal” Gonzalez. Juan hated these novios, recognizing them for what they were: cheap nobodies wanting to use and make trash out of his má.
The buzzer blared, startling Juan. Final score: 75–40. Glad that the game was finally over, Juan followed his teammates onto the court and joined the single-file line to congratulate the winners, both teams high-fiving and muttering “good game” to one another. Juan said nothing, the whole after-game ritual fraudulent. The Tigers pretending there was anything “good” about the game was more humiliating than the beating itself, more humiliating to him than splattering his guts in front of the home crowd.
“It figures I get my best game in our worst loss,” JD said, meeting Juan at midcourt, nodding at the spot where Juan had puked and grinning like an idiot. The rest of the Panther team, Coach Paul included, quickly disappeared into the locker room. “I won’t even get to remember this shit fondly. All anyone is going to talk about is you puking. That was hilarious, by the way.”
“Glad to contribute,” Juan said. “I must have eaten something bad.”
“Maybe those Trumputos put a curse on you,” JD said. “They’re probably still pissed at you for stealing that game from them—and their country. The whites are pissed about all that.”
“We won that game! We didn’t steal shit! Besides, you weren’t even there!”
“I know. I’m just joking. Chill. I was sick.”
“Well, I’m just sick of all this losing.”
“It’s just a game. It don’t even matter.”
This was classic JD, always missing the point. Juan was
sure JD took being the leading scorer on the losing side as some kind of moral victory, but Juan knew there was no such thing. Any performance, no matter how brilliant, got erased by losing. Every beatdown, every triple-double that came attached to an L, brought Juan one step closer to having his own L permanently stamped across his forehead. Or maybe it already had been, and that’s why the recruiters failed to come. They knew what Juan knew deep down: He couldn’t turn his team into a winner because he wasn’t one.
• • •
Out the gym door Juan could see Ruben’s neon-green H2 hogging two spaces at the end of the PAC parking lot. He and Fabi stood behind it. Fabi craned her neck as the team began filing from the locker room. Ruben stared into the small screen of his phone, swiping at it with his finger. Fabi had texted Juan three times now, saying she and Ruben were waiting for him. That Ruben was nice enough to want to take them to dinner. The Hummer had televisions molded in the leather headrests of each seat, underneath the monogram El Rey stitched across in neon-pink lettering. It’s wheels were chrome and shiny as mirrors.
“Where you parked?” Juan asked JD, pulling him back from the door, stopping him before he strutted from the locker room, the post-game shower failing to wash away his ten-point swag like it failed to cleanse the loss from Juan. The team was already asking if Juan was going to make the “half-court heave” part of his regular game.
“Teacher’s lot. I don’t want my ride getting dented up by the kinds of assholes who come to high school basketball games. Except for your mom—she’s not an asshole. . . . Why is she here, anyway?”
“I need you to pick me up at Cakes.”
“I don’t want my má and her pendejo boyfriend to see me leave. He wants to take me to dinner. No way.”
“Ask if you can take a friend.” JD threw his hands in the air, exasperated, his eyes wide. “I’m hungry.”
“Let’s just eat at Danny’s.”
“Is that why she came to the game? So he could take you to dinner? That sounds all right to me.”
“I don’t know why. And I don’t care.”
JD was shaking his head now, his hands on his hips like a disappointed teacher, before he suddenly stopped, a thought seeming to zap into his head.
“Maybe he wants to be your new daddy? He can get you the neon-green bike with TVs you’ve always wanted. You can be in his goofy commercials, be like the Prince of Payments or some shit like that. You two could work it out over some flan. C’mon, let’s go get some free food.”
“Why am I friends with you?”
“Because on the first day of kindergarten you wouldn’t stop crying and I was the only kid who would sit next to you. You remember.”
“Yes, I’m a giant crybaby.” He elbowed JD in the gut. “Now, go tell my má I left already. No seas cabrón.”
“Bueno, pero I’m gonna need a hug first. For you being all mean to me.”
“I’m not hugging you.”
“Yes, you are. So I can get over your assholery. You only children got no social skills.” JD stood waiting with outstretched arms. With no siblings and some cousins he was sure weren’t really cousins, Juan counted JD as one of the few people on the planet he could say he loved. He hugged his brother from another mother, each slapping the other on the back before JD surprised Juan by gripping him tightly. “I’m proud of your emotional honesty, cabrón.”
Juan felt a surge of relif as he watched Fabi and Ruben finally hop into the Hummer and peel away after a quick conversation with JD, tires squealing and the smell of burnt rubber lingering as Ruben cut through the emptying parking lot. Juan’s phone buzzed. Fabi. He didn’t answer. Once he was sure Fabi and Ruben had driven far enough away, he made his way behind McKee Stadium and the rest of the high school. Raking a discarded broom handle across the chain-link fence surrounding the perimeter, he imagined the fight Fabi and Ruben were having. Her apologizing for her asshole son and him making a bigger deal of Juan’s ditching them than it actually was, trying his best to have an advantage over her.
Trash blew against the fence, trapping plastic grocery bags along the bottom, adding to the snarl of small tumbleweeds and candy wrappers. Before seeing Fabi at the game, Juan had planned to skip the party at Danny’s. Come up
with some excuse and head home, watch some old Jordan highlights on YouTube. He wasn’t in the mood to party, but those plans were now out the window. Fabi would be looking for him, and the party at Danny’s new house, way over on the East Side, would be a good place to escape to.
Cakes by Sonny—the small bakery on Stevens Street where they sold cheese fries, tortas, conchas, and loosies—was closed. Damn. Juan kept his hands shoved in his pockets as he waited for JD. He now wished he hadn’t left his AHS sweatshirt balled up in his locker. That he owned a jacket. Someone, who probably owned both a sweater and jacket, was grilling. The greasy smell of carne asada made Juan’s thoroughly emptied stomach ache.
Flashing his lights, JD sped across the bakery’s three-space parking lot and slammed his brakes in front of Juan, the engine of his ’88 Escort pinging as it idled, fan belt squeaking. The body of the hatchback had originally been blue but had bleached to an almost white—well, everything except for the red driver’s-side door and front fender, junkyard parts JD’s old man used to fix a wreck JD had been in while learning to drive. The back passenger window had also been replaced, by duct tape and cardboard, after a break-in where the cassette deck—who was still listening to cassette tapes?—had been ripped from the dash. JD wrote on the cardboard in fat marker: Some dick stole all my shit. Perhaps he hoped no one else would feel the need to poke around the inside of his car and steal his loose change or the pinwheel he’d glued to the dash.
“Gimme a cigarette,” JD said as Juan jumped inside.
“I don’t have any, and you can see Cakes is closed.”
“Always with excuses. Have some fucking pride.”
“Let’s go to Danny’s already. He’ll have frajos. And beer.”
“And weed?” JD said.
“Probably,” Juan said. “It’s a party.”
“I bet he doesn’t. He’s at Cathedral now. The rich kids got him. I bet they’re playing spin the calculator and doing homework.”
“You kidding? Those dudes are way more fucked up than either of us. I bet Danny smokes bath salts now.”
“You really think so?” JD said, putting the car into gear. “Do you think it’s hard to keep that uniform clean being addicted to hobo meat?”
“I’m sure the struggle is real,” Juan said. “And being in the student illuminati is no joke, either.”
“Catholics are assholes.”
“Isn’t your whole family like hardcore Catholic?”
“Just my mom and my sister and my old man and my brother, both nanas and my one tata who is still alive, all my tías. But that’s it. Don’t get it twisted.”
“And you? You’re not Catholic anymore?”
“I lost my faith when Father Maldonado dumped me for a younger altar boy.”
“You’re messed up.”
“True,” JD said, pulling away, a blast of white smoke clouding from the tailpipe. “For real, though, promise you won’t be all salty. I can’t deal with that tonight.”
“That’s you, homie,” Juan said, adjusting the passenger seat. “You’ll be the one hating on Danny’s new peeps all night.”
“Just the shitty ones.”
The nerves Juan had felt since tip-off faded as JD drove, and he began to warm to the idea of a party, of heading toward something fun and with no drama, even if only for a night. It felt like a win.