Def: o'kay ter'ri'fic: 1.common expression of muted astonishment due to being surrounded by amazing stupidity, without quite knowing what else to say. 2.expression that usually precedes the changing of a subject brought up by an individual who is perfectly clueless to anything or anyone outside their own narcissistic corner of the universe. Origin: Unknown

Location: Bergen County, New Jersey, United States

Steven Hill is the author of the independently published A VOICE ABOVE THE DIN, available at www.lulu.com/holbrookhill, or Amazon or B&N.

Thursday, July 21, 2005


Here's a short story I wrote a couple years back, for what it's worth:


“Honey! Come quick. You have to see this.”

Stephen Ward ignored his wife, Nora, hoping whatever it was she wanted wouldn’t be too important so that he could succeed in disregarding it. Putzing around in the basement had become more and more of a solitary ritual for him, a pretension of necessary work that really wasn’t.

“Honey!” She sounded more urgent.

Stephen grimaced up at the rafters, unhooked his tool belt, and plodded up the stairs.

“What is it?” he sighed, poking his head through the basement door.

“You have to come look at this. Hurry or you’ll miss it.”

He walked through the doorway and down the hall, more with the aim of pleasing her than himself. One more shared Oprah inspiration or Martha Stewart tip wouldn’t kill him. He had suffered through thousands of these types of things in 22 years of marriage. It was all part of the game.

“Look,” Nora said, nodding at the small kitchen TV as she wiped minces of diced onion off her hands and into the sink. “Isn’t that Travis Sims?”

Stephen took a few steps closer to the screen. On it was a tall, muscular young black man manacled in handcuffs and leg irons. He was being ushered from a squad car up the steps of a courthouse amidst a gauntlet of cameras and reporters. His head was down, so it was hard to tell for sure who it was.

“Where’s the damn remote?” Stephen snapped, just as he noticed it sitting on the island next to the faucet. He snatched it up and raised the volume. “Why do you always have the volume down? That’s so annoying.”

He didn’t wait for an answer as he turned his attention to the reporter on the screen. He upped the volume a little more just to show his wife he wasn’t really expecting a reply. She made a clicking noise of disapproval with her tongue.

“. . . time will tell, as Travis Sims, the nation’s number one prospect for next week’s NFL draft, is arraigned on charges of murder. This is Shelly Peterson reporting live from Trenton, New Jersey.”

Normally Stephen would’ve been right there in the thick of things covering that story with the rest of them. But with his daughter’s wedding looming, he had taken a much-needed, month long vacation from the paper. It was his first one in ten years, Nora had dutifully pointed out to him.

“Murder?” Stephen was stymied. “That’s crazy! Travis Sims isn’t capable of murder. What the hell is going on?”

“Must be a mistake,” Nora chimed in. “It’ll all work out
I’m sure.” She never lifted her head from the cutting board.

“Your rose-colored glasses are blocking your vision, honey. The poor kid was being led away in leg irons, for Christ’s sake! What if you were young, black, and on the verge of living the American Dream, and suddenly you’re charged with murder? Something doesn’t seem quite right.”

Nora placed her knife on the board, wiped her hands on her periwinkle-flowered apron, and said, “Why don’t you do something about it?”

“You mean help him? You’re not serious are you?”

Nora tossed chunks of tomatoes onto cut lettuce still draining in the colander. “Stephen. It was twelve years ago. You still haven’t let it go, have you?”

Stephen clicked off the TV. “No! I haven’t. We’re talking about our son here. Our son. How am I supposed to let that go? You wanna tell me that?”

“Just because I’ve let go, doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten, Stephen.” Her icy stare pierced him so that he averted her gaze. “Yes, I have moved on. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t—” She paused and dabbed the corner of her eye with the back of the apron. “You have to move on, Stephen. Besides, you’ve helped Travis in the past.”

“That was different,” he protested. “That was a long time ago, right after—”

“How, Stephen? How was it different back then compared to now?”

Stephen picked at the cane webbing on the stool in front of the granite island. He said nothing.

“So why not now?” she pressed. “He has nobody, you know. His adoptive parents are both dead. He has no one to believe in him.”

“Well, what about the wedding?” Stephen offered, hoping the excuse would fall on sympathetic ears.

“You aren’t doing anything to help with that anyway. You’re just signing the checks.” Nora untied her apron, folded it neatly on the counter, and put her hand on Stephen’s shoulder. “Honey, go help him. If he’s guilty, he won’t need you. If he’s innocent, he will. Either way, I think you need to do this, for your own sake.” She moved to touch his hand.

“I don’t know if I can,” Stephen muttered and disappeared back to the basement.


The guard ushered him into a cold, damp room outfitted with two chairs that looked as if they were hand-me-downs from a school principal’s office. The chairs sat on either side of a long folding table. He was surprised by the openness of the meeting. He’d expected the typical phone conversation, separated by thick, smoky, bulletproof glass. He wasn’t prepared for a face-to-face.

Stephen sat on the far chair and waited. With nothing better to do, he pulled out his notepad and scribbled. He knew he’d be lucky if he came away with anything to go on. After ten minutes, the door opened and a different guard escorted Travis Sims into the room. The guard motioned Travis toward the chair and stationed himself in front of the door. Dressed in the obligatory orange jumpsuit, Travis was handcuffed with his hands in front of him. He sat down and stared at Stephen blankly.

Stephen sighed and asked, “Do you remember me, Travis?”

“Yes I do, Mr. Ward,” he answered. His voice was thick, as if a doctor’s tongue depressor was pushing down his throat. Travis always had the habit of speaking without moving his lips much. “I read your article. Do you want to do another interview?”

Stephen almost laughed out loud. That article was written a year and a half ago, when, as a junior at Penn State, Travis shattered the all time collegiate pass yardage record. It had been a good article, highlighting the fact that if it wasn’t for his football skills Travis Sims would never have been in college, though the interview was one of the most difficult of his career. “No Travis,” he said. “I’m not here to interview you. I want to help you.”

Travis gazed uncomprehendingly.

Stephen wondered if this kid had any realization, other than surface, of the significance of what he was going through. Did he have any idea that he could be in jail the rest of his life? Did he have any clue that his career was history, that no team would touch him with a ten-foot pole? Did he even care? Or was he just dense enough to go with the flow because he didn’t know any better?

“Travis,” Stephen started, shifting uncomfortably in the hard chair, “do you know why you’re here?”

“Somebody died.”

God, if it were only that simple, Stephen wondered. He leaned forward. “They think you killed that girl.”


“They’re going to keep you here for the rest of your life, Travis.”

“I like the food,” he said and smiled daftly.

The guard snickered.

“Travis, listen to me. Do you want to stay here until you die?”

“Do they play football here?” he asked.

God I’d forgotten how dim this kid was, Stephen muttered to himself. “I don’t think so Travis. Do you want to play football again?”

“Yeah, Mr. Ward. You know that’s all I’ve ever wanted to do.”

“Then help me get you out of here. You didn’t kill that girl did you?”

“No sir, Mr. Ward. I didn’t kill nobody.”

“Do you know who did?”

He shook his head.

“Do you remember anything, anything at all from that night?”

He shook his head again.

“What about some names? Who was there? What bar was it?”

“Lotsa people was there. I don’t remember their names, but they’re all my friends. They gave me nice drinks.”

“One minute,” the guard barked.

“Travis . . .” Stephen started, and then he put his pad away. He wouldn’t be needing it. “Look, I’ll read the police report and find out what bar it was. You’re not helping me much.”

“Maybe someday, Mr. Ward, we can have a catch again?”

Stephen was stunned. He looked down at the table and fell into an old memory for a moment. “Maybe,” he mumbled.

“I’m sorry about Liam,” Travis said, out of the blue.

“You remember?” Stephen asked, still staring at the table.

“Time’s up,” the guard interrupted. “Let’s go Mr. QB.”

Travis rose from the table and looked longingly at the guard. “Can I get my ice cream now?”

The guard snickered again and shook his head as they walked out, his belt jangling profusely. “Sure thing, sonny.”

Stephen sat and gazed. The kid had apologized; he’d actually said he was sorry.


It was a sweltering day, so typical of a New Jersey summer. Stephen Ward sat on the stoop, leaning forward with his forearms against his knees, head cradled in his hands. Sweat beaded steadily down the nape of his neck. He gazed up at the liquid sky, dripping with humidity, and groaned for the millionth time. The pain gnawing away at his stomach had grown increasingly unbearable over the past week. It’s supposed to get better, not worse, he thought. Maybe it’s just too soon.

He felt the sudden awareness of someone’s eyes fixated on him. The hair on the back of his neck spiked, and he looked down to notice Travis Sims standing on the front lawn, hugging the maple tree. This didn’t surprise him at first. Travis had a reputation for showing up at awkward times in the oddest of places. Once, the family was eating dinner in the house when all of the sudden he walked through the front door without the slightest advance notice, no knocking or bell ringing. He just walked right in off the street looking for Liam. Everyone felt uncomfortable, except for Travis that is.

“How long you been standing there, Travis?” Stephen wasn’t the least bit pleased with his presence.

“Can Liam come out and play?” Travis asked, ignoring him.

“Jesus, Travis!” Stephen shouted as he jumped to his feet. “What the hell kind of question is that?”

Travis instinctively recoiled a step and stared into the mid-distance between them, shifting his eyes back and forth.

Remember, Stephen thought, he’s a simpleton. He only looks like he’s ten. Damn crack-addicted welfare mothers. If his mother had any idea of what she produced . . . remember where he came from, Stephen reminded himself. He wiped the back of his hand across his brow.

“No Travis,” Stephen sighed. “He can’t play. You know that.”

“Can you play?”

“No, Travis. No. Go home now.”

Boy, Stephen thought, the nerve of that kid asking him to play! God, how stupid can a kid get? His mother cranks him out between pipe hits, and he ends up adopted by Mister Upper-Middle-Class-White-Gynecologist. That kid hit the lottery and didn’t even know it. Why the hell did he have to end up on my street, make friends with my kid? What were the chances of that happening?

Stephen sat back down on the stoop, picked at the peeling paint on the iron railing, and let the hazy afternoon slip idly by, because he wanted nothing else to do with his time.


After a few phone calls and a close inspection of the police report, the meat of the story came together. Travis had been with his college “buddies” partying at some fancy club in Philly. Rumor has it they were celebrating the draft prematurely. Inside information passed on to Travis placed him with the New York Giants on the first pick, though this was a widely held secret from the media. The group had inexplicably moved the party to a dive in Trenton, where Travis had his roots. There was a fight that spilled out to the alley, a young woman was beaten to death, and a handful of witnesses pointed the finger at Travis. Case closed. Or so it seemed, but Stephen Ward couldn’t get it out of his head. Could Travis Sims pummel someone--a woman no less--into an unrecognizable mass of blood and tissue? Granted he was six-two, two hundred ten pounds and not an ounce of fat on him. But to thrash someone like that--even if you’re totally gone--requires more than physical dominance. A switch has to go off in your head, something that turns off all conscience and remorse. Travis Sims didn’t even have that switch to flick. Stephen didn’t want to think about it, but he knew what he had to do.

The bar was on seedy Southard Street, between Warren and Calhoun, not exactly the greatest spot for an almost middle-aged, middle-class white man to be. Stephen Ward parked his Camry across the street from the bar, in front of a row of dilapidated tenement houses. Litter was strewn over the pavement and sidewalks. People walked about, sat on front steps, or generally stood idle on the corners. There wasn’t one white person to be seen.

“Doesn’t anybody work anymore?” Stephen wondered out loud as he turned the ignition off.

He got out of his car and hit the lock button on his remote. The horn honked twice to assure him the car was secured and in the alarm mode. People turned and stared.

That was smart, he thought, and quickly shoved the keys in his pocket.

He self-consciously rubbed the back of his neck and marched across the road into the bar. It was dark and he waited for his eyes to adjust. An elderly black gentleman sat behind the bar smoking a cigar. A few others were gathered at tables in the cramped dim space. A gigantic man sat at the corner of the bar, facing the door. He would’ve given Shaquille O’Neill doubts had they met up in a dark alley. Everyone looked over as Stephen stood in the doorway. The giant man slowly stood up, his head almost touched the low ceiling.

“Uh . . . does anyone here know Travis Sims?” Stephen asked out loud, his voice trailing to a whisper from the sudden tightening of his throat.

No one answered. They all just stared.

“I’m not a cop—”

“What you want, white boy?” the Giant asked, taking a step closer.

Stephen thought hard about what to say. Nothing fantastic came to mind. “I want to help Travis Sims, but I need to know what happened. I’m a reporter.”

“Too many of you people coming around here,” the Giant boomed. “You best git going if you know what’s good for you.”

“Look, I don’t want trouble. I’m an old friend of Travis’. I just want to help him.”

“How you know Travis Sims?” the bartender asked as he stubbed his cigar in an ashtray. Stephen thought he seemed sincere in his query.

“He was friends with my kid. Grew up with him,” Stephen explained, not taking his eyes off the Giant. “Played with him. He lived on my street, a few doors down.”

The bartender suddenly came around from behind the bar and stood in front of the Giant. “You the honkey who taught Travis how to throw?” he asked.

“Yeah, that’s me,” Stephen said as he looked back and forth between the two men. “How’d you . . .”

“What’s your name?”

“Stephen. Stephen Ward.”

“Damn!” the bartender said looking up at the Giant. “He ain’t lying.”

“You sure?” the Giant asked.

“Sure as you is black on black, sucka. Travis talk about him all the time when he come by. Damn! Said if it wasn’t for him, he not be playing football.” The bartender turned back to Stephen and offered him a seat at the bar and walked back around behind it. The Giant took his seat as well.

“Lemme git you a drink,” the bartender said.

“No thanks,” Stephen said. “Look, I want to help Travis. I know he didn’t kill that woman, but I have nothing to go on. Was anybody here the night of the party that I can talk to?”

“Junior here saw everything,” he said, nodding to the Giant.

“Damn, Callis, shut you up!” Junior roared. “I ain’t helping no white man. They all coming around here ain’t none of them helping us, is they? They not us. They from a different world. That’s what I’m talking ‘bout.”

“Look,” Stephen pleaded, “if you know something, you’d be helping out Travis, not me.”

“Junior,” the bartender said in a fatherly tone. “The man want to help. Tell him about Paul Robeson, now.”

Junior scowled and picked up the straw from his glass and chewed it. It looked like a toothpick in his mouth. “How I know you not lying?”

Stephen Ward was feeling a little bolder now that the bartender was on his side. His reporter self-confidence was coming back to the surface. “Who the hell else is going to help him? Outside of me and you, Travis is going to jail for life. You either want to help him, or not. Who’s this Paul Robeson?”

Junior looked at the bartender. The man nodded again.

“C’mon,” Junior said, and he stood and walked out of the bar. Stephen tagged along. Outside on the curb, Junior said, “You got a car, follow me. I be in that Caddy over there. We ain’t driving together. I gots a reputation to think about.” He spat on the ground.

Stephen followed Junior deeper into the bowels of Trenton, his heart still pounding, but glad to be back in the confines of his car. After about ten minutes, Junior pulled up to a ramshackle dwelling on the edge of a vacant lot on the outskirts of an abandoned industrial complex. He ambled back to Stephen’s car.

“Wait right here,” was all he said.

From his car, Stephen saw Junior barge through the front door of the house, and for a second he wondered if the splintered structure would even hold under the weight of the big man. There was a scream, some loud banging, and in a moment Junior walked back out, dragging behind him a young, black man that was a dead ringer for Travis Sims.

Stephen slowly got out of his car, his mouth wide open. “Oh my God,” he muttered.

Junior threw the young man against Stephen’s car like a rag doll. He bounced off the hood and his head thudded against the pavement producing a nasty cut. His hands were tied behind him with a junkie’s rubber cord as he rolled on the dirty sidewalk.

“That’s Paul Robeson,” Junior bragged, satisfied with his catch.


The very next day Travis was back again.

“Can you play with me?” he asked.

“No, Travis,” Stephen seethed. “Get this through your
thick head, I don’t want to play with you! I want to play with my son, not you. Now leave.”

After a minute, Travis turned and walked back to his house. Stephen sat on the stoop and began to weep uncontrollably.

Two minutes later, he heard his name called and looked up through teary eyes in the direction of the voice. As he did, a football smashed hard and square into his chest, almost knocking the wind out of him. It bounced down the steps and onto the front lawn. He grabbed his midriff and gasped. Travis was standing thirty feet away in the street. No one else was around.

Stephen glared at Travis. Who did this kid think he was? He got up and retrieved the ball. He whizzed it right back at Travis, really trying to hit him with it. Travis caught it with ease. Stephen was dumbfounded, he had thrown it pretty hard. He shook his head and turned to walk away, when he noticed out of the corner of his eye Travis rearing back and letting loose once again. Instinctively, he reached out and caught the pass. The ball stung his hands it was thrown so hard. Stephen knitted his brow and looked at Travis standing out in the middle of the street. He was ten years old, stood a good hand’s length shy of five feet, and was skinnier than an alley cat dripping wet.

Stephen looked down at the ball. Surprisingly, it was close to regulation size, but not quite. Probably a junior league from the local Moes or Sports Authority. But still, he wondered, how the hell could the kid throw like that? He decided to test him out.

“Travis,” he said, as he walked out in the street, “have you ever thrown this thing before?”

“Yeah, with Liam,” he said. “But he stunk at catchin’.” He giggled at the thought.

“Here, take the ball,” Stephen said, choking back tears as he walked up to him. “Can you pass it to me while I’m running?”

Travis shrugged.
Stephen jogged down the pavement past the driveway about twenty paces and cut a pattern directly across the street. “Okay,” he huffed. “Throw it.”

From a standstill, Travis effortlessly set back and let loose a torpedo right in Stephen’s numbers. It stung his still- smarting chest. Stephen stopped and shook his head. He jogged back to Travis.

“Who taught you how to throw like that?” Stephen asked. “Your dad, or your older brothers?”

“Nobody. They don’t play with me.”

“Let me see your hands.” He grabbed them as Travis held them out. They were huge for a ten year old. Stephen shook his head again.

I don’t want to do this, he told himself. After what this kid did . . . I just want to smack him upside his head. But Jesus, he had some kind of natural born gift. It’d be a sin not to do anything about it. He rubbed his chin and tossed the ball back to Travis.

“You really want to play, Travis?” he asked.

“Yes, Mr. Ward. Can we play some more?”

“Only if you play by my rules, okay? You do exactly as I tell you, got it?”

“Okay,” Travis agreed impassively.

Stephen spent the rest of the afternoon running patterns on the street while Travis rocketed pass after pass to him. He knew that audibly telling him when to pass wasn’t going to work for long, but how to get the idea of when to pass into his molasses mess of a brain? Then he had an idea. He sat Travis down on the street and drew Xs and Os with a piece of Liam’s chalk. Travis got a kick out of that. Nothing fancy, just the basics. After each chalk lesson, Stephen would run the pattern, and Travis drilled him every time. Stephen Ward went to bed that evening in wonderment over the little bastard kid with the golden arm.

The next week, Stephen brought Travis into his back yard. He laid a bucket on its side against the fence and placed Travis on the other end of the yard, about seventy-five feet away. Soon there was a hollow tin thwack as the ball bounced out of the pail. He scrounged up three more buckets, put them against the fence at various intervals, and called them by different numbers. Travis nailed every call. Stephen ran and grabbed his screw gun and some screws. He fastened the buckets to the fence at various heights. Travis hit them all. He didn’t miss one. By the middle part of that summer, Stephen had rigged up an intricate, Rube Goldberg type of system of between eight and ten buckets fastened to ropes and pulleys, all moving in motion at the same time when he pulled on them. It had taken him the good part of a day to figure it out on paper, then another week of actually making it work, but it was worth the effort. Travis was in his spiral-glory, laughing out loud every time he hit a bucket.

When school had started that year, Stephen came home after work one day and saw a moving truck up at the end of the street. He went and inquired and sure enough, the Sims’ had moved out. He was a little miffed at not knowing anything ahead of time, but then again Travis wasn’t the kind of kid to put two and two together enough to mention it to him. Stephen strolled into his back yard, picked up the football, and threw it mightily at a bucket, knocking it so hard that it swung around and got entangled with another rope and pulley. Summer was gone, and so was his little experiment with Travis. He decided to leave the buckets up for awhile, after all he had taken down the trampoline a mere two days after Liam was bounced from it, landing right next to him, his body limp from a broken neck. Travis had never said a word about the trampoline or the accident. At times Stephen thought perhaps he didn’t even remember it. It was next spring, a season of new beginnings, before the buckets came down.


Texas Stadium loomed large and pretentious above Stephen Ward as he stood on the sidelines a few paces away from the coaches. The big hole in the roof was a magnet for his eyes, that is, until the practice squad took the field. He was in awe at the precision with which spring training camp and tryouts were conducted. Other teams, he knew, were lax about the procedure, being more concerned about straightening out kinks and kneading sore muscles than they were about fixing their eyes on a championship so early in the year. Not so the Cowboys. They were a well-oiled machine, and they meant business, even at this early juncture.

Coach Parcells glanced at his clipboard, called out Travis Sims’ name, and barked orders to his assistants. He turned back to Stephen and raised one eyebrow, as if to say “Okay, let’s see what he’s got.” Stephen smiled in return and nodded toward the field as the athletes formed their squads. On the first play, the receiver ran a post-slant, and Travis hit him with ease. There were a few jeers, and someone called him lucky, but Stephen knew that it had absolutely nothing to do with luck, nothing at all. He decided to take a seat and watch from the bench. The next play was a cross-pattern, and the ball was drilled perfectly. Parcells glanced back at Stephen, then yelled for the defense to step up the pressure. An assistant leaned over and reminded him that it wasn’t a full practice, that the players were only wearing helmets and shoulders pads. But Parcells ignored him. The defensive line grew aggressive, and Travis skirted them with ease. Play after play, he ran circles around his future teammates. The more they tried to pressure him, the more unfazed he became. On the last play, Travis really won them over. It was a wide-out and the ball was so beautifully thrown that by the time the receiver looked up, it had floated into his hands like a down pillow from heaven.

Stephen smiled from ear to ear as he sat on the bench. And he wondered if Liam had been there, would he have done as well as Travis? He was always a natural athlete, with grace and potential that was obvious even as a ten year old. Perhaps he would’ve been a baseball player instead, with that fluid swing of his. Maybe not a great one like Bonds or Rodriguez, but an average one at least, living out his dream just the same. There was no doubt in Stephen’s mind, though, that had Liam been on the field that late spring day in Texas, he never would’ve hit those buckets every time like Travis up the street did.


©2003 Steven Holbrook Hill


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