Each basket counted as one point. The first team to reach twenty-one would be the winner. The lead kept changing back and forth. With the score tied 15-15, I got trapped in the corner, unable to pass, and threw up a no-look hook shot that miraculously went in. A minute later Derek stole a pass and drove the length of the court for an easy lay-up. The boys on the other team started arguing with one another and we won without their getting another point. After the game my teammates all congratulated me and shook my hand. I was sliding my T-shirt over my head when I saw my father standing by the gate.
“Hey, Mister Spotless,” Pinto said.
My father lifted his hand in a silent greeting, then he looked at me and shook his head. I got a hollow feeling inside, knowing I had let him down. I realized instantly that I hadn’t locked the double doors in back of the truck. I pictured him coming out of the apartment building and finding me gone, all the clothes missing. He stood by the gate and waited for me. I glanced at him, trying to gauge his mood. He a faraway look in his eyes, and I was thinking – hoping, really – that he might be drunk.
As we walked up the street, I said, “I’m sorry, Pop. I should’ve stayed by the truck.”
He shrugged and didn’t say anything.
When I got in the truck, I looked back and saw the clean, undelivered garments still hanging on the racks, bundles of dirty clothes stacked on the floor. Nothing seemed to be missing. My father started the engine and shifted into reverse to back out of the parking space. Then I saw a strip of duct tape lying next to the gearbox, the tape my father had used to secure the cache of bills to the underside of the dashboard. I didn’t know if he had noticed the tape himself yet. Maybe he had left it there on purpose so I would know what had happened. An acrid taste bubbled up in my throat. It would take me weeks of busing tables to pay him back. I picked up the tape, which was twisted and stuck on itself, and straightened it out. Then, in my shame, I put the tape over my mouth.
My father gave me a puzzled look.
“Hey, Charlie,” he said. “No harm, no foul.” He grinned and patted the underside of his seat cushion to indicate another hiding place. “A man’s gotta keep moving, just like basketball.”
My skin burned as I peeled off the duct tape. I wanted so much to believe him.
We drove up the street past the playground. The boys had started another game.
I said, “Did you see that shot I made?”
His voice broke a little. “I sure did.”
* * *
My father never did stop drinking long enough to move back into our house. In my junior year at Penn State my mother called me at school to say that he was in the hospital. He’d been struck by a car when he stopped to change a flat on his truck. My mother said he had some broken bones but otherwise he seemed fine, even managed a few jokes from his hospital bed. The doctors said he would make a full recovery, but that night he had a brain hemorrhage and died.
After the funeral, my mother let me take the truck back to school. A friend and I painted the exterior in Day-Glo colors and put a shag rug on the floor in back. Everyone called it the Heavy Chevy. My fraternity brothers liked to borrow it when they had a hot date. One day, a few weeks before graduation, the rear axle on the truck gave out. I was on a highway and was lucky I didn’t have an accident. The tow truck came and took it to a service station. The mechanic told me it wasn’t worth fixing. There was no reason not to believe him; the clutch was starting to slip and the engine was burning a quart of oil a week. I didn’t have much stuff in the truck – just a few textbooks, a road atlas, my tennis racquet and a can of balls. I put them in a trash bag and hitchhiked back to the campus. In the fall, I went to the University of Michigan Law School. One day while I was sitting in the law library, thinking about my father, it occurred to me that in the years I’d owned it I had never searched the truck for a stash of bills. Perhaps he put a tight roll of fives and tens in one of his hiding places before he got out to fix the flat tire. I thought about where he might have hidden it – under the dashboard, in the padding of the torn upholstery, maybe behind a door panel or in one of the hollow pipes of the clothes racks. I felt stupid, and angry with myself that I’d hadn’t thought of this before. Maybe I could go back to central Pennsylvania over Thanksgiving vacation and see if I could locate it. Then I figured, How much money would it have been? Fifty dollars? A hundred, at most. Would it really be worth the time and effort?
I never made the trip. Still, I think about that old truck sometimes. I picture it in some weedy junkyard, squatting on its back bumper like a psychedelic toad, eyebrows on the windshield arched in anticipation. Mr. Spotless’s hidden treasure waiting to be found.