by Alex Cothren
Willy was born a runt. He grew like a bonsai tree: by age six he was head-to-shoulder with the other boys, by thirteen it was more like head-to-hip. His body looked like an experiment half-finished and abandoned: arms and legs like curtain rods sheathed in flesh, muscles like sketched blueprints of where the muscles should go. He struggled to walk against a headwind.
And yet, Willy had a dream: he wanted to be a professional basketball player.
To the outsider it would have appeared comic: the stunted child bouncing a ball a quarter his weight up and down the ruined inner-city courts from dawn to dusk. Rehearsing his jump shots and lay-ups by their thousands daily for what stage it was hard to say. Whispering under his breath the broadcasts of his greatness to come.
Willy’s simple goal had been to make the freshman team come fall and he failed spectacularly. Pulled from the court on try-out day before warm-ups had even begun. Sat in the locker-room and talked to by a weary coach hoping for a clean, surgical extraction of the boy’s dream before its cancer could spread further.
Days of listlessness followed. It was then that Willy began to notice the ads: Your Child: Perfected, the smiling couple, the gleaming laboratory, the newborns time-lapsed to grow each tall and firm and unerringly symmetric. But these ads did not quote prices and Willy knew they were for a class of people far wealthier than he or anyone he was destined to become.
Once again, Willy had discovered a dream not intended for his pursuing, and, once again, he set his course against its tide.
He left high school as soon as law allowed and became a janitor in the glass tower of a brokerage firm. Amongst moneyed men and women such a worker is invisible, so as Willy scoured their toilets and emptied their wastebaskets, he crept close and listened too for the secrets of their world. His hermitic, one-bedroom apartment became burdened with text-books on finance and stockbroking. He took to their pages as he had once taken to the courts: his heart burning, even sleep a frivolity.
Eventually, he was moved to the mailroom, and his transformation of that department’s efficiency was the source of office jokes about elven hordes or the corporate use of octopi. A stockbroker took a chance on Willy running his phones and when that stockbroker went on a bad run it was Willy to whom his vacant desk was accorded. Willy worked harder and smarter than the other stockbrokers and he eschewed entirely the parties and brothels they wasted themselves in. Long after his contemporaries had burnt out, Willy was made partner. Then, during the maelstrom of an economic collapse, Willy single-handly saved the company from bankruptcy and he was rewarded with the crown of CEO.
At this point, he had done nothing but work for a quarter of a century. It was time to have a son.
Snubbing the bachelorettes of high society, Willy returned to his old neighbourhood to search for a wife. He settled on a woman whose broad hips and resilient temperament boded well for the coming ordeal. Willy had saved this woman from a life of poverty, so she was pliant to his will: she did not even blink at the meeting with the geneticists when Willy slammed his fist on the table and promised money unlimited if only they venture taller and stronger than ever before.
By the third month of pregnancy the woman was swollen grotesquely and permanently bedridden. She died in childbirth: split open like a rotted melon took to with an axe. The attending midwife slipped a disc retrieving the newborn and shortly thereafter retired. Partly due to the back pain, partly due to a prescience that what had now been set in motion would deliver greater horrors down the line.
Willy never remarried. He had his heir, Willy Junior, and that was all that he had ever wanted. To tend the child he hired a wet nurse of Pacific Island heritage; she was a hulk of a woman and yet could barely constrain the child that grew like something radioactively exposed. By age six the boy was his father’s height. By thirteen he could cradle his father in his arms like a kitten. Desperate letters of offer were arriving daily from every professional basketball team in the country and all Willy Senior had to do was sit back and await patiently his moment of redemption.
It never came: the boy simply had no interest in the sport.
Instead, Willy Junior loved riding horses. His father hated him for this, but humoured him nonetheless. The two moved into a mansion upstate and on its grounds built a horse-stable the envy of most mansions. The boy’s size meant he could ride only draft horses: Shires and Clydesdales and Danish Jutlands of such enormity that they shook the earth like the harbingers of apocalypse foretold. Willy Senior sat on the porch nights and watched Willy Junior ride and ride and ride, and he woke each morning to the shaking earth and his son riding still. He waited for the boy’s passion to fade and perhaps be replaced but longer it stayed the fiercer his own admiration became.
Finally, Willy Senior invited to the house a racing magnate whose word was God in his profession. They sat together on the wide veranda drinking whiskey and small-talking business as Willy Junior rode laps before them. Willy Senior felt sick the entire visit. He smelt the adolescent sweat of a high-school locker room and heard sneakers squeaking out somewhere in the distance. Finally, the magnate finished his glass and got up to leave.
I’m sorry, he said. That boy is just too big to be a jockey. There isn’t a racing horse in existence that could carry him and live.
That’s true, Willy Senior replied. Not yet.