#8 of Thin Paper Walls
06 - Natural Talent
The silent anticipation just half a lap before gave way to cheering and applause from all around. The yelling and hollering of what I could now refer to as my teammates dominated the airwaves and encompassed the pit area. The crew celebrated their teammate's championship with cheering, clapping, and hollering from every which way. Jerrod got all kinds of high fives and hugs from furs all across pit road, even from different teams, and I myself felt elated to be able to call these victorious furs my team for next season. Usually I couldn't handle crowds, but consider this an exception; the victor's party on pit road. I found even myself giving pats on the back and pawshakes to the team members, feeling obliged to conform, not to mention wanting to simply look good. Didn't want these people totally neutral with me.
I shook the paws of every team member I could find, but it took me a while to realize Brandon now stood beside me in the 25 pit area doing the same. Nothing more than an act of pure sportsmanship, I thought. Either that, or he's one-upping me. Either way, definitely not a Rhys or a Zedley and definitely different from the others. Even if it's a threat, he had a very cute and playful way of going about it. My lips curved into a smile as I continued the routine, shaking some more paws, receiving some more hugs, and being quite literally pounced on by excited team members (namely Riley)... and keep in mind we're speaking of Izra Lofton's team (who finished 10th), not championship winner Christine Boyd's. Tails wagged and ears stood high as muzzles filled the air in jubilant howls. I was somewhat relieved we weren't three pitboxes down.
"Jasper, you got a front row seat to witness your, dare I say, teammate's first Cup Series championship. Can you describe what this means to you?"
I got taken aback by the sudden onslaught from this female fox. When did word get out that I had already gotten hired, when just two hours ago I said nothing? "Uh... I never mentioned I was hired yet, did I?" I tried to sound more confused than snippy, but then I noticed the station. ESPN. Whatever I said would hit national news immediately. I had the power to change the face of the sport as everyone knew it... well, in a small dose at least. I clucked my tongue and my tail fluffed defensively.
"He is." Jerrod firmly patted my back, in my eyes saving my skin, "This won't be tha most formal of announcem'nts, but I may's well let everyone know that yes, J. will b'driving for m'next year and run f'r Rookie of the Year."
I watched Jerrod's bony, bearded jaw move as he spoke almost robotically. He turned his head dramatically southward to face tiny me, his wise old eyes meeting mine again, "And I have a good feeling about this kid." He faced the camera again.
"Where does this leave Izra Lofton?" the female mouse inquired and quickly moved the microphone back toward us. A couple of people had pens pressed to paper feverishly taking notes on every word we breathed. See, that's why I promised myself I'd never dare come out in this sport. That's why nobody could know about my hidden sexuality. That's why, despite wanting a boyfriend and wanting to be a passionate lover, I knew I couldn't have it. Either have my passion or my emotional freedom, and I gave up the latter.
"Izra and I have d'scussed this f'r the last few months. He knew in September his chances of his contract being re-upped were slim to none. We had a few sponsorship complaints and had to oblige in order for us to keep our dedicated sponsor in Cinemart. We could not find any others that would provide us with the necessary funding to keep the 25 team alive, and unfortunately, this was our only choice. S'a shame it had ta end like this, but the kid's far from done with the sport s'far as I'm concerned. Kid's got a lot've ability ta drive these machines and I may have more opportunities for him'n the future, but the kid and his crew chief, Zavis Mohr, are going to make some additional efforts in the future, and I wish them nothin' but success."
"Thank you, Jerrod. Now Jasper, returning to my earlier question, how does it affect your confidence in this team going into next year knowing that they are fresh off their first title?"
Despite the fact that one for three would be a new record on my bad-interviews-over-the-course-of-the-weekend counter, I wanted to overachieve, but I drew a blank, realizing once again that the focus was on me, and my mind wouldn't write a script for myself quick enough, "I... uh..." I sighed and searched for words, but for a few moments none escaped.
At an instant, I felt a firm paw slap my back, as if its owner saw me coughing on the words. I laughed and smiled ear to ear as Brandon met me when I turned. I pointed at him and faced the camera, laughing at myself "I'd better say something or this guy's gonna kill me!" The bated breath of my probably-sympathetic audience let out in a collective sigh of relief. Surely even my haters (given any exist) felt nothing but happiness upon seeing me recover from this one.
"What makes you think I'd do that?" His eyes shifted to a seriousness matched by his voice. There was silence for a moment.
My smile dropped for a moment as I searched him.
Suddenly he burst out laughing and pointed at me teasingly, "Kidding!"
A few of the reporters even laughed, buying me time to gather my thoughts.
"Naah, I don't... But to answer your question, Mindy, it gives this young organization a history to be proud of. It means a lot to the families and friends of these great guys and gals working for the team, as well as the members themselves. It's just breathtaking to see such a short history produce such success. I'm happy to be driving for them next year, and I look forward to a strong rookie year."The Little Engine That Could method used by Brandon, the I-think-you-can pat on the back and keep-on-chugging look on his face drove me to spit all of that out at a decent, comfortable speed and tone. My soft, light voice clear as crystal. By God, I felt like his puppet, but maybe in this situation that posed as a good thing.
"Well said, Jasper. Thank you." Usually the reporters don't give any pause to compliment an interview, but I feel I deserved it. Three interviews in 24 hours, and two were good! My tail wagged rapidly, but I stopped it before anyone commented about the random wagging.
The reporter turned to face Brandon, "Brandon Reese, in the last week you've gone from someone almost nobody had heard of to sealing up the 10 car which NAFSCAR Hall-of-Famer Bill Brock is retiring from. Does that pressure weigh on your shoulders at all?"
He shrugged and scrunched up his mouth, gazing at both his shoulders and brushing one off, "They seem pretty clean to me." He grinned after he spoke, his voice confident.
The analyst actually laughed a little, as did I, "So I take it you are prepared to undertake it. What are your goals for 2010?"
He cleared his throat and his smooth, soothing vocals spilled out from his mouth, "The same as the other drivers; win races, make the chase, and don't crash." The bluntness of all this revealed to me a bit of his personality; cocky but not to a point of self-obsession, determined, competitive, focused, and passionate. Me if you nix the confidence and the focus.
"Can you elaborate for us a little on that note?"
"Surely. I mean, most of the drivers and media members will probably count out drivers like me and Jasper here either because we're the rookies. I personally aim to prove that rookies are the real freakin' deal. There's a reason they get hired, and I'm going to prove it by keeping the fenders on it, running up front, winning races, and prove that I belong here."
The female badger departed and left me and Brandon to speak amongst each other as we walked to the media center where the crowd outmatched the congregation after the wreck earlier that evening. As the televised ceremonies ended and interviews began approximately an hour after Boyd's win, I found myself for two hours driven to the edge of my nerves with questions and assumptions. Oddly enough, my mind stayed on Brandon, though, and he had gotten himself lost in this crowd. My curiosity fluttered around how he has somehow boosted my confidence where nobody else managed to, but unfortunately I alone faced an onslaught of mediocre interviews.
I began to grow weary only a quarter after midnight as Jerrod made the formal announcement that I would be a part of the team next year, then that ferret bounced into my vicinity again.
"Heya bud!" He chirped, somehow still hyper after being up probably longer than I.
I faced him and yawned hugely, my tongue curling.
"Tired already? We're going out to the Five Leaf Clover, man! You gotta come with-- oh wait, you're 21 right?" He was jumping all over the place in tone, but the energy from earlier had worn off slightly.
"As of September."
Only slightly; he was immediate to jump on the answer, "Good! Good! Me and some of the team are headed out there tonight! Beers are on me for the new guy." His jaw was flapping with the speed and intensity of a seizure, but I managed to understand every word.
"Sure you can afford me?" I adjusted the invisible bowtie on my neck, "I'm afraid I'm a bit too high-class for the classic pint of beer."
He blew a raspberry, "It's fine, order what you will, mister pompous."
"Jasper!" I heard Brandon's voice and my ears went up instantly. My tail wagged pretty rapidly for some reason as well. I found him almost literally swimming through the near-ocean of furs. I didn't feel bad standing like a chicane in the middle of a crowd... in my own mind, crowds piss me off and therefore I feel they deserve it. Flawed logic, I know.
I waved him over toward us and he managed to arrive in one piece, if breathless. "Let's get out of here! Meet you at the Five Leaf Clover, J?" Oh boy, three hours and I'm already being called J.
Brandon bounced a little, "I love that place! Jasper, you ever been there?"
"We're leaving!" Riley yelled.
"Mind if I tag along, boys? Joan and Tamir already went home."
Joan Becker and Tamir Stiles were the owners of the 10 team. The team, Becker-Stiles racing held a still-running record of longest time with the same crew chief, their son JJ Becker-Stiles. For this reason, Brandon getting the 10 intimidated me.
"Come on, man! Let's go!" Brandon scurried after Riley and I shrugged and followed the tanuki through the path he carved through the crowd.
The Five Leaf Clover was a Scottish-Irish pub with a wide selection of greasy, grilled food and a variety of alcohol. The tables in this place were made of aged wood and the seats held a cushion with a similar color. Several dozen neon signs lit up the bar from the ceiling and high up on the tall wooden walls, a large green clover hanging down from the center of the dining room, and the white on my Metallica shirt glowed underneath a blacklight I positioned myself toward. Brandon, Riley, and I sat at the counter and waited for one of the bartenders to service us.
"What can I getcha?" A scruffy black bear leaned over the table as an alligator stood in the background washing shot glasses. His wardrobe consisted of a green long-sleeve shirt with the pub's logo, black pants, and a viser sporting a pin of a leprechaun holding a pint of beer on the brim. He wasn't the most attractive thing in the world; fat, ratty fur, obviously older, plain colors, and his scent strong, screaming 'bathe me'.
"A shot of bourbon whiskey. Put these guys on my tab." Riley said.
I grimaced at the mention of whiskey. I figured, since I sat among new friends: Fuck it, I'm getting a fag drink.
"Cherry Margarita, please." I smiled at the bartender. He gave me an odd look as he wrote it down in a small notebook.
"Same as him." Brandon pointed at me, "But leave a lemon wedge on the rim." I heard Brandon say. Just... wow.
I downed my glass pretty quick, eager to move it along so I could go home and sleep, but at the same time I stayed glued to the tanuki adjacent to me. He sparked a conversation about different drinks he's had and some of the oddities he's tried. Of those he mentioned, I displayed a particular interest in the Raspberry-Lime Tailflopper, and of course...
"We actually serve the Tailflopper here, believe it or not." The alligator almost seethed. Obviously this guy had smoked for a while, as it did not seem intentional.
"Screw it, get me one." I spun in my seat a little, already feeling a buzz and hoping the Tailflopper didn't pack too much paw.
The drink slid across the table in a shallow margarita glass. It was iced and had a striking deep purple colour, and on the edge of it lay a candy feral-mouse tail, fitting the theme. Despite it being 36 proof Vodka, it actually had a nice smooth flavor, "I like it!" I told an eager, staring tanuki, "Very sweet, with a nice bite."
He crossed his paws and blew a raspberry, "It's just so-so, isn't it?"
I shook my head violently and my ears twitched a little, "No! No, it's actually really nice!"
"Pff! You didn't really show it that much."
I shrugged, "Maybe we have different tastes." I took another sip, "Seriously, though... I really do like it. Thanks for the recommendation."
He nodded and turned to ask for another margarita. I felt guilty drinking so much in a single night (my uncle Jack does enough drinking for this family), but I ordered another Tailflopper with cherry instead of raspberry and lime.
Our conversation steered back to racing. I didn't bother Riley and some of the other crewmembers; they were talking with the bartender about baseball and he was working on his fifth shot.
"See, when I first started in ASCA, I was only 18." I told him.
He developed a slight buzz after his second glass, "Really? Man, I didn't get into ASCA till last year. I think I remember you won a race... um... and you..." He was a little gun-shy.
I flushed red and folded my ears half back, "Cried?" I paused for a moment, and when I saw his indifferent expression my ears slowly came back up, "Yeah... that was me. My first win and my dad died that week." I blushed, realizing we barely knew each other and he'd already seen me cry. Kinda creepy... usually rapists would be the only ones that can say that. I caught my mind before it departed Earth, "Still not very proud of what I did to hinder what would've been his only latemodel win."
"I don't think I'd ever heard that story." He leaned over the counter, but I was unsure if he was catching a fall or just that interested.
I inhaled and heaved a sigh, "Well... I was driving in the latemodel divisions at age 17, and my dad and I were first and second on the final lap of a race." I sighed, "I got greedy off turn 4 and wanted the win, and I got it. He was very proud, and I was ecstatic. But it felt sour to me after he died. I really do regret it."
"It's racing, man." He shrugged, "And you had no idea your father would die."
"Ehh... I still hate it. If I had one wish, it's that I could redo that moment of my life and not let my competitive edge overcome my love for someone." I lied. That would be my second wish. He didn't respond immediately, so I forced a new subject, "So... I heard you had 9 wins in ASCA. Been driving for a few years?"
"Naah, man. Only ran 20 races. Drove for Larry Riddle." He laughed a little, his smooth voice making me smile as it carried on happily, if a little drunk.
I heard Riley let out a drunken whoop when Free Bird began to play on the radio.
I sipped again on my second Tailflopper. This one had a striking natural cherry flavour, which I found very pleasant. I stood a bit behind him, let alone Riley, on getting buzzed. "Goddamn..." I breathed as I sipped my next drink, "Only 20?! Jeez, the rumors ain't kidding."
He shook his head and then dipped it low, "That means a lot, thank you. I grew up all over the place and hated it. Never thought I'd make it here."
"Can't be as bad as Lakeway." I rolled my eyes thinking of my hometown.
"Few miles outside of Austin, Texas."
I took a large gulp of the blood red drink, letting it slide down my throat as the bite of the alcohol and the sweetness of the cherry coated my mouth, "You're kidding, right?" I placed my glass back on the counter half empty and leaned on my knees, now engrossed in the conversation.
"Yep. Born and raised in the tiny town of Supply, North Carolina but moved in with my grandparents in Nome, Alaska when I was 17."
I paused and looked a bit bewildered, "Why?"
He seemed a little twitchy, his finger tracing the rim of his glass and his eyes fell. I assumed the buzz had just increased on him a bit, "Ehh... wanted to try something new. Got bored."
"How did you race in Nome?"
"Took up dog sled racing as a passing hobby, but car racing? Naah, I had to head inland to do that. I raced modifieds up there for a good while; my grandparents funded my career and transportation while not actually owning a team themselves."
My jaw dropped, "Wow, you had a crazy start."
He laughed. His eyes met mine again, "I guess you could say that. A little different than most. I don't really have time to tell ya the whole story, but trust me, it's different."
"Welcome to my world." I said quietly.
He took another sip, taking the lemon off the glass and munching on it. "Totally. Tell me about your world." He spoke with a mouthful of lemon.
I sighed and rubbed my pawpads against smudges on the base of my glass. I was a bit nervous about what I would say. "Oh boy, let's see... my dad supported my career till he died when I was 18. Mom died giving birth to me, so I never met her. She was the lynx, by the way. I was born outside of Minneapolis, Minnesota but moved to Lakeway when I was 4; my dad's business relocated him to Austin and in order to stay employed and support me he had to move near there. Been pretty much a steady rise since... and now..." I stopped and thought about being a driver in Sprint Cup. I drew a deep breath and smiled, "Dreams do come true, man."
"Ya... ya gotta haff dreams, m--man. If ya ain't dreamin', you're just prob'ly screamin'." Riley spoke over my shoulder. I cringed as I could smell whiskey strong on his breath.
"I think you've had enough, bud." I smiled at him.
"I... I know. You started t'look kinda hott so I stopped." He smiled stupidly and looked at Brandon, his eyes half-open, "And you... you looked hott from the start. Don't be taking him fr'm me... Jasper."
Brandon's eyes were wide before he blew a restrained raspberry and then burst out laughing, "I'm sorry!" he screamed as he pounded the table with a fist.
I joined him, laughing while placing my face in my palm, "Yes, you've definitely reached a limit, Riley."
After laughing for a few moments, I paused to hear the intro to a familiar Red Hot Chili Peppers song playing on the radio. And boy did me and Brandon have a bit of a challenge amongst ourselves...
"I love this song!" I cried out.
"I bet I love it more." Brandon eyed me and began to sing along, "Come to decide that the things that I tried were in my life just to get high on. When I sit alone, come get a little known, but I need more than myself this time."
I joined in with him to see who would go further before forgetting or stumbling over a lyric. Despite both of us being a little tipsy, we both managed through the song without any problems. However, on the next song, "It's the End of the World As We Know It" by R.E.M., we both failed miserably and had a bit of a laugh as we tried to keep up.
It was an odd feeling not having the gripping paw of cautiousness and the obsession of privacy clenching me for once, especially around furs I hadn't developed trust with yet. Riley's drunk exchange of words with us reminded me of something; I'm gay! For once, I went an evening calm and collected, not once thinking about the fact. Buzzed, I couldn't be anxious about anything, otherwise at this point I'd be considering giving some subtle hints, or at least try to raise a reaction from Brandon. I wasn't quite sure at this point why I would want to know, but... well... Brandon was different.
I shook hands with the few team members that had shown up, but didn't get to do much talking with them, as most of them were pretty hammered at this point. We said our goodbyes after a while, and I arrived back at my hotel thinking happily about my exchange with Brandon and Riley. But this time, when I thought of Brandon, I started thinking of him like I hadn't thought all evening; if he's this different, maybe he understands. Then a greedy thought returned: Is he gay? So far so good: no girlfriend mentioned, no obnoxious staring at tits, an indifferent reaction to Riley's drunk judgment on him (albeit accurate in my eyes). At the very least, he could be my best friend who knows. My only friend who knows. He seemed easygoing enough.
Then I came to. Not even a full day had passed! I had the entire offseason to get to know him a little more, and piece by piece, I knew I would eventually get my answer.
Absolutely exhausted having been up over 20 hours, I set my cell phone alarm as I had my first team meeting at Daytona tomorrow evening and I wanted to get an early start.
Looking out my window, curtains completely ajar, I faced the city one more time. I rose from the sheets and stared out into the distance. The neon lights of Miami, the calming reflection of the moon on the water on the horizon, shining like pearls. Lights of vehicles glimmered here and there throughout the sleeping city, bringing it to life. I thought for a brief moment... maybe Brandon, right now, witnessed the same skyline, the same beauty. Maybe he is mutual. Maybe he is asking himself the same questions I am. This greedy thought made me smile.
I turned around to face the empty bed once again, frowning as I snapped back to my lonesome reality.