Life had been good lately. Or, had at least been stable. As stable as a life spent largely on the road enduring universal disdain could ever be. If the sparkle had somehow left Sager's eyes, it was replaced by grim acceptance. And, there were the weekends at home in Scottsdale as well. If you were to happen by the floor-to-ceiling windows of a stucco McMansion off the 18th green, you might observe domestic bliss. Or something.
The afternoon had been spent at Santa's Village. The penultimate Colorado Blue Spruce had been delivered by truck and wheeled into the living room. Craig was pleased. It was a living tree with its root ball encased in damp burlap and would be a proud addition to his back lawn after the holidays – he had just the spot picked out. Anne however was less than thrilled. She had been holding out for something made of metal, and was now swirling ice in a tumbler. Chipper meanwhile was plucking living needles and sticking them in his sister's angora sweater. Bunny Bear proceeded to wail and Craig exited to the patio and the comfort of his Adirondack, as the sun went resolutely down.
He thought about firing up the grill but a toothache was coming on. Inside, the sound of rending angora and a fresh anguished wail. Bunny Bear shared his reverence for natural fibers. An angry yell from Anne, the sound of Chipper's stomping feet as he headed upstairs to his wireless weather station kit. Craig found himself wondering how Betty the library assistant was. She didn't judge.
It was dark outside. A cold front was moving in. And still he sat. He imagined the smell of pine, a yellow moon and dream comfort memory. The familial pull wouldn't leave. And he knew it wasn't right, that toys by themselves weren't enough.
The early light revealed passing fields, now barren and cold. Faded barns and swayed ridge beams. He'd taken the old highways up through Utah and now into Wyoming. The RAV4 was doing yeoman's work. There was no shortage of food wrappers, seven hours out now and eyes burning. His cell had rung incessantly, until it hadn't. Anne would be making coffee, the children would be up soon. And questions and tears.
A long sweeping bend. A motorcycle by the side. An older gentleman with a leather bomber jacket. Sitting patiently by his backpack. Watching nothing in particular, facing away from the road. Sager pulled in and turned off the motor. The pings and ticking sounds. A warm engine and cold air. The man turned slowly, and also smiled slowly.
Big birds flying across the sky.
The man climbed in, slowly. The long pain that is simply accepted now. The backpack went into the back seat. Some strange stringed instrument stuck out through the top flap. It looked like a harpsichord. But it wasn't.
“Sager.” Just a statement. As if it was the most normal thing in the world.
“Phil. Problems with the Road King?”
Phil Jackson is a man who is careful with his answers. “Where are you headed my friend?”
“Saskatchewan. And you?”
Phil turned his attention to the passing barren fields. “I'm to host the kids at Deer Lodge for the holidays. Saskatchewan's nice this time of year though.”
Sager shrugged. He was already into Wyoming. He had not yet crossed across any borders.
Phil eyed the photos on the dashboard curiously. “Deer Lodge can wait.”
Night had turned to day and had turned to night once again. Craig Sager had tried to hide the smile but he felt like someone with a brother from another mother, you take it where you get it and sometimes you have to hide a grin. Like when you have a chance gelato spill and stop at a thrift store catering to the cabaret crowd. And then your whole life changes.
Walter and Doris stood blinking at the door, bathed in the ambient glow of a single strand of holiday lights, zig-zagging across the clapboards.
Walter squinted, and then his countenance lit up. “Well, Phil Jackson, how are you sir? Come on in out of that cold night air!”
Doris beamed happily as well. She and Walter didn't know Phil personally but they certainly watched television, and while their son's parade of pastels and plaids had long worn thin, there was something different about a brush with eleven rings.
Phil stepped aside and motioned for the son to enter first. He followed behind, as Walter and Doris murmured anxiously about “the peat moss.” A moment later Doris did an about face and led him back out to the dining table.
“You just sit a spell and let the boys do what they have to do. No reason to trouble yourself. Would you like a glass of sherry?”
Phil pondered the question and sat slowly. “Is there anything else?”
“We have limeade.”
“I guess I wouldn't mind a small glass of sherry.” And then watched a curious spectacle as America's sideline reporter and his father made a series of hallway trips, carrying large bags of garden fertilizer over their shoulders out into the cold night air. He looked to Doris and raised his eyebrows. She just smiled sweetly. In due time, the procession ended and there was the sound of extended vacuuming. Craig finally stepped into the living room with a red, sweaty face.
“You'll be bunking with me. I got twins. But I have to take a shower first.”
It was late now. The faint smell of an apple-scented candle wafted from down the hallway. Phil was sitting at the dining table with Walter and Doris, playing canasta. Craig watched from the recliner, scowling and checking his cell messages now and then. “We could listen to music in my room if you want.”
Phil waved off the suggestion. “It's your draw, Walter.”
The gray dawn arrived and Craig was awoken by the strange sound of oddly-chiming strings. It sounded like flowing high-mountain water to him. He wiped the sleepy-bugs from his eyes and sat up, wrapping his blanked around him. “Where did you learn to play like that?'
Phil was sitting cross-legged on his twin bed, cradling his zither and plucking the strings. “It's my version of 'Rolling in the Deep' by Adele."
Sager nodded. “Do you know any Leonard Cohen songs?”
Phil shook his head slowly as if bemused by the man-child's questions, then looked back levelly. “No. But I can play this.” And began a languid version of Soundgarden's 'Black Hole Sun', speaking the words as he plucked the zither's strings.
Sager watched and listened, wide-eyed.
Days came and days passed. Craig and Phil took to visiting Rosthern's Main Street. They browsed the racks at Pogo's Bargain Center, sat on the park bench. Some nights they would stop at Bumpy's Bar. If a game was on, Phil would share his wisdom with the regulars. Craig attempted to join the conversations but his old pals simply slapped him on the back as if they were in on some familiar joke. He finally stopped trying.
At home, Phil helped make salads and watch the local weather reports with Walter and Doris. Christmas was just days away. At night by the glow of the twinkling bulbs, songs would be sung – joyous renditions of Burl Ives and Frankie Lane classics. Doris would accompany on the piano and Phil would strum his zither. Craig sang along at first but didn't feel appreciated, and eventually went to his room and listened to his own music, trying to drown the grownups' revelry. It just didn't seem right. He yelled out in the general vicinity of the living room. “Mom! Do we have any more pudding cups?”
Phil's bemused voice drifted back. “Sorry sport. I had the last one.”
It was a cold, clear day. The sun was shining through the windows. Phil was sitting on the couch, lost in thought. Craig wasn't sure what was wrong. He only knew that the legendary coach has been on the phone earlier, having a “private conversation” with someone. And now he looked sad and lonely.
Craig spoke up. “D'you want to go for a walk in the woods? That's what I do if I'm feeling troubled about anything. I bring my cassette recorder with me and sit on my favorite rock.”
Phil thought about this and shrugged. “Okay”.
They sat there by the stream, Craig perched on one rock eating goldfish crackers from a baggie. Phil sat on an adjoining rock, looking toward the water. The beavers could be seen, poking their heads their heads up briefly now and then from their pile of sticks and logs in the water.
“Those are my friends, Chipper and Mrs. Sleek.” Craig held out the baggie of goldfish crackers. Phil accepted them companionably. Sager continued. “You seemed sad in there. Is it because of the Lakers?”
Phil shook his head and smiled. “No, my friend. If you love something you have to let it go. If it comes back to you it is yours forever, if it doesn't, then it was never meant to be.”
Craig cocked his head, seemed about to say something, then closed his mouth and wrinkled his brow. He seemed to be working this out in his head.
Phil spoke again. “Well, it is about one Laker actually. Jeanie. That's who I was talking to on the phone earlier. She arrived in Deer Lodge. Tomorrow is Christmas Eve. She and my kids are wanting to see me. And I want to see them. This has been a fine past few days though. And I thank you.”
Sager's shoulders slumped. “It seems like we didn't even hang out that much. You just wanted to play cards with my parents.”
Phil Jackson stroked his white beard. “Why are you here, Sager? You have your own kids, you have a wife. It's Christmas time for crying out loud. Your bedroom isn't all that cool. It kind of smells in there to be honest.”
Sager thought hard on this. “Lately, the black dog has been with me. I'm questioning everything. I have an annoying ringing in my ears that won't go away. I don't know why I keep coming back here. I don't even think Walter and Delores are my real parents. They just tolerate me. I'm supposed to be from Batavia, Illinois. That's what Anne keeps telling me. And I don't think she's my real wife. Which means Chipper and Bunny Bear wouldn't be my real kids. What am I supposed to do?”
Phil tossed a couple goldfish crackers to the beavers. “Of course you're from here, sport. Nobody pretends to be from Rosthern, Saskatchewan. All your changes were here. But it is Christmas. And those kids deserve to have their dad with them, black dog or not. You could get a Santa suit.”
Craig considered this. “Not just any Santa suit.”
Craig Bartholomew Sager arrived at his own front door sometime after dark on Christmas Eve. It had been a long, bone-weary drive. He'd dropped Phil Jackson off in Wyoming, and they had thanked each other for the company. Now he stood at the threshold, and rang the doorbell.
Anne opened the door and put her hands on her hips. “Santa. Nice of you to stop by.”
Craig was wearing a glorious red leisure suit trimmed with faux ermine around the cuffs and collar, and a red velvet pimp hat. And a giant black patent leather belt. And a fake beard. “Ho ho ho!”
The kids came running out and hurled themselves against his legs. Their daddy was home. Anne shook her head. “You'd might as well come in then.” And she turned and walked inside. Sager grinned.
Christmas day had been splendid. The children opened an obscene amount of presents by the glorious living Spruce, and a wonderful meal from Whole Foods was consumed. And candy and treats and snack trays galore. Anne had appreciated the David Yurman jewelry and had polished off a goodly amount of Veuve Clicquot. And now the sun was going down. Again.
Craig had retreated to the patio and was parked in his Adirondack. Shadows crept across the golf greens below until the darkness consumed him. Anne had thoughtfully plugged in a strip of Christmas lights that crept across the patio fence. The tiny twinkling bulbs tried burning their way through the thickening black syrup of night. His cell phone vibrated silently. He looked at it and then spoke cautiously. “Yes?”
The voice sounded far away. “Hi Craig. It's me, Betty. From the library.”
Craig answered. “Yes, I know.”
A long pause. “Are you with your wife and children?”
“Yes, I am.”
“That's nice. Everyone should be with family on Christmas. So, have you been thinking about me at all?”
“Well, yes. Sometimes.”
“I bought a new dress. It's blue with a snowflake pattern. I think you'd like it.”
Sager sighed heavily. The tinnitus in his ears began again. Inside, he could hear the sound of the children. They were beginning to quarrel and the sound mixed with the ringing in his ears. Anne's voice was raising in timber but he could not make out the words. The voices seemed to ebb and flow in some strange rhythm that he hadn't yet figured out.
“Craig? Are you still there?”
Sager clicked the phone off and reached into a paper bag that was by the side of his chair. Inside was the old cassette recorder, it had come back from Saskatchewan with him. He pulled a wrapped chocolate from his pocket and put it in his mouth. And pressed play. The comforting rasp of a singer from his past.
Everybody knows that the dice are loaded, everybody rolls with their fingers crossed.