His father seemed to be driving them home. When the light turned green, he hooked a left instead of a right. The difference was a reminder.
"Aw," he said. "Do we have to see Stan?"
"It's a privilege to see him." His father's tone was patient but with an edge. He must have anticipated Kenyon's reaction. "He's old now but, you know, when he was young, he was a sports star."
"So what?" Kenyon folded his arms and slumped back in the seat. "Sports don't matter. Sheesh, dad, they didn't matter even back when he was doing it."
"Well, we're going to go see him. So that's tough." His father shook his head. "You should really be nicer to Stan. He was a decent guy to kids, his family, everyone. This was back when tough guys like him usually weren't nice. Anyway, he used to be my neighbor."
"You've said that a million times."
"Fine. But we're seeing Stan." The next turn was another left.
A few minutes later, they strolled up to the front step. The old man met them at the door. His white, collared shirt looked new. He must have expected Kenyon's father to drop by. For a former sports star, he seemed awfully short, basically just another bald-headed, wrinkled fellow in the weekly parade of geriatrics who passed by on the street. His head barely came up to Kenyon's dad's chin. His stomach hung over his belt. He walked with a limp when he didn't use his crutch.
"Come in," he said with a wave of his right arm. He didn't look too steady.
"How are you doing?"
"Fine, fine." Stan closed the door. He kept a grip on the handle as he turned to the hallway behind. When he let go, he huffed and forced his way past them. He limped into the kitchen. "Everything's lit up. My son couldn't stay for checkers. But I've got the board all set. Have time for a game?"
"Absolutely." His father's dark eyes twinkled in the hall light. He loved it when Stan invited him to play.
The two men took seats on either side of the kitchen table, which was one of those old pieces of furniture that looked like it came from a diner. It had aluminum trim and an off-white formica veneer. The chairs matched it with aluminum legs and vinyl cushions. The men didn't offer Kenyon a seat. They ignored him.
Kenyon glanced around in the hope of finding something of interest, anything. Maybe Stan's grandchildren left toys or comic books. There wasn't anything good that he noticed, though. Even the refrigerator looked clean, just one crayon drawing of a green monster hung with four steel bead magnets. With nothing else to do, he flopped into a hard, aluminum-backed chair. He held his head in his hands as the game began, much to Stan's amusement. The old fellow chuckled at him.
After the first few moves, he lifted his head and said to Stan, "Checkers is old stuff."
"Everything's old stuff, kid," the man replied. "You just don't know it."
"You were complaining about sports on the way here, Kenyon." His father put his hand on a red checker and contemplated where he should put it. "Sports and games are older than civilization. They're not going away."
"Your kid doesn't like sports?" The gravely voice rose a notch. Stan responded with a single black jump over a red checker.
"Off and on."
"Well, sports are different now." Stan's shoulders rounded low as he sighed. "Pickup games are fun for kids. Games that adults run for them, not so much."
His father took a turn to cover up a possible double jump.
"When we were young, Stan, sports stars like you lived in the city." He took his finger off as he ended the move. "They hung out in my neighborhood. That's a sports difference, too. Kids don't meet players."
"Yeah." A finger plunked down on a piece. The black response blocked the red advance. "Your move."
"If you hadn't lived here, I wouldn't have played most sports or games like this." It took Kenyon's father a moment to formulate his plan. He rubbed his hands together then moved a piece to create a diagonal alley for his next try. "I remember you and your friends with your checkers and backgammon in the park. Crap, I'd never seen a backgammon board before. It looked so weird."
"You got good pretty fast for a kid." It was the voice of approval.
The two played in silence for while. Kenyon's dad fell down by two checkers. He'd started off too slow. Stan had grabbed the better position. Now that he'd gotten the lead, he could afford to trade pieces.
After a while, out of curiosity, Kenyon asked, "Do you still root for your team, Stan?"
"Can't help it." The old ballplayer gave a sheepish smile. "It feels like they're my team even though they're mostly a bunch of strangers who don't know me from nothin.'"
"That's what they think of everybody." Kenyon thought of the sports stars at his school. They were cruel to him sometimes. "They think other people are nothing."
"Some of them are like that, yeah."
"Why do you root for them when you don't know them?" He moved to the edge of his seat, hands on either side of his legs. "You just said that they don't know you."
"Part of it is the uniform. They claim to represent the city. I feel like it's my damn city. I put work into it." He nodded to himself and grunted. "Maybe that part is a bit cynical of them but I enjoy it."
"The players and owners may feel cyncial," his father said. "But the fans really do care. That's why they get angry when a player behaves badly and it appears in the news. It reflects on their city. That's why they cheer when someone acts brave or stubborn on the field. Because they judge the character of the players in that moment and they like the spirit that they see."
"Jeez, your father is a romantic. I've heard this before."
"You probably know about the recent scandal." His father leaned forward.
"Yeah, yeah." Stan frowned at the pieces. Something about the formation wasn't what he'd intended.
"Fans can root for someone who made a mistake. If someone grew up with violence in their family and overcame it or if someone drove drunk when they were young and straightened out, they probably understand if a player does the same. After the first mistake, though, they're watching very, very closely. Whether you come back straight or not is a sign of your character, too."
Stan made his decision. His hand darted out to the move. Then he leaned back.
"The fans don't watch closely enough," he said. "Some of those guys are crap. They don't deserve forgiveness."
"Maybe. But the point is that sports isn't irrational no matter what my son says. Playing is good for you. Rooting for the team is an extension of rooting for your community, whether it's your old school or your city or whatever."
"You could be rooting for your hospital, dad." Kenyon wished his dad liked their doctor more. The office had lots of nice people in it but his dad never visited even when Kenyon's mom asked him to make an appointment. "You know, nurses and stuff. You could care about things that matter."
"My son thinks sports don't matter."
"They don't. That's why I love them," Stan said with a laugh. "I was a hospital orderly for a lot of years, kid, after I had to stop playing. I saw how it was. The doctors mostly lose. And it matters. It's sad. But when you're talking sports, no one dies. No matter how bad you lose, no one stops you from going home to your family."
"Not like in war or in a surgery," his father added. He slid a red piece forward.
"Sports doesn't solve problems but it doesn't create them. The games don't matter, just like you say. The most carefree moments of my life came while I was playing. You're in the moment. You forget everything but the game. You forget yourself." His hand shot out. He jumped two red pieces with a black one. "Hah! King me."