“Jesse,” Sage asks, “I didn’t know you were legit back then. I mean you got a full ride at Howard and you got money after Howard for running?” Jesse looked unimpressed. “Yea but that’s irrelevant now. I got this essay contest I’m working on. Then I got to call people about this anti drug campaign for next week. I’m working on the kids that need me today not the kid I was back then.” She remembered the old photo she found of a young Jesse surrounded by a group of men. They were all mentors of his. Sage thought about the men in her life and wondered what her mentor photo would look like. On one side would be DeWayne and Ronald. On other her Pastor and my Uncle. Although fantasy, beside me, secretly holding my hand or his hand on her waist would be the one who had her heart. Of course Jesse himself would be in that photo as well.
In his Jesse’s trunk were other awards. one included an award from Broward County human rights in Florida dating back to the early 90s. Sage always believed he was a Jersey kid through and through. Apparently he was but at some point ended up in Florida until people from Jersey called him back in the 90s to help a city that didn’t even have a youth track team at the time. Another award was an award for Outstanding Father in 98 by some minority business women organization. “Jesse how many daughters do you have to get this from a whole organization?” Sage asked. “None. I got one son.” Jesse replied as he continued to take small sips while he digs through his car for this watch. He continued, “I just loved those girls like my own. Some of them were closer to me than they were to their own birth dads. I remember that.” He raised his head from the glove compartment and turned his head toward to me look at the award in my hand. He continued, ” You would think the warden, deacon or even the pastor I was up against would get the award over me. But nope. It was such an honor. But what is that?” On the back of the award was a stained napkin with writing on it deliberately taped to it. Sage noticed the napkin earlier but did not want to know what it was or where it came from after seeing the mysterious stains. He read the note allowed. “God, children, you all. . . Oh right! I didn’t even expect to win this award but when I did I wrote something down fast as ever before I got up to receive it.” He laughed a little and tried to tape the napkin back onto the back of the award. Sage asked, “So were these girls on your team as well?” He shook his head, “It wasn’t track related which made it better. I love track but I love being more than just track as well.” There were some other awards lying in his car including a spotlight award he said he received while at high school nationals in 2015 and a plaque with the words “It is of great honor for the Martin Luther King Parade Committee to present Jesse Jackson with the first ever African Heritage Community Service Award. June 22 2017”.
In the backseat, between the left seat and the window was a photo of what Jesse and about 10 other kids in Gladiator track sweats. The photo could be anywhere between late 90s and early 2000s. In the photo was a tall skinny runner who looked like he was in college. He looked oddly familiar. “Jesse,” Sage turned the photo towards him, “Who the tall one?” He squinted his eyes towards the photo, “Oh you see that bus across the street?” Sage stepped out of the car to look. It was a typical large bus with some words across side in bright colors that was hard to read. I took another step into the car, one knee on the back passenger seat, the other foot still on the sidewalk. “Yea.” She replied. “Well the coach for that school is the kid. Boy that kid was something. Went from selling on the street to the Olympics. One of my best stories. In fact, that group was amazing. This kid next to the tall one, she wanted to a dancer. I had to race her to get her to train on the team. My old 800 runner ass dusted her. And that one, won meet of champs indoor her freshman, sophomore and junior year. Would’ve gotten her to win her senior year but her high school coach didn’t want her training with me no more. I tell you some of these school coaches are something else man. That one went to school in college running 60 but senior she was still running 61. I had her train with me twice a week indoor to 59 and by outdoor conference she ran 55. Twice a week. And that small skinny girl. You reminded me of her when you ran in high school. Had her go from 2:30 freshman year to 2:20. By senior ear she was running 2:08 and got a full ride to Howard. That boy on the left, he was from Nigeria.” Sage looked at the short, dark skin boy sitting on the ground. Jesse continued, “He loved wearing that Gladiator rain or shine.” Sage was surprised to see he was actually talking about the light brown skin boy standing behind the boy on the ground. Some stereotypes are hard to shake. Jesse laughed, “You know he recently told me its been 17 years that he’s known me. But hey after 32 years of coaching yea I would know these kids for a long time. He was like you too. Shy thing. So shy he was scared of New York. I mean I don’t blame him. When you only know New York from what you see on TV its no wonder his parents thought he was going to get shot there. Now he lives in New York.”
Sage put the photo down and continued searching for the watch. On the floor was a Penn Relays book with a bookmark in it. Curious and nosy, Sage opened the book to the records section. Under the Olympic Development relays in 2004 were the winners. For both men and women 4×1 and 4×4, Gladiator Track Club swept all the relays that year. Next to the book was a St. Peters’ University sweatshirt. She knew the story with St. Peter’s. Jesse only worked there for a season, maybe two. She remember the stories of how he paid his assistant out of pocket to be with the team. She remembered how they underpaid Jesse. She remembered the Facebook posts around that same time with posts about poison chemotherapy and vomiting. Despite rushing from chemo to practice and throwing up in practice, she remembered posts about the most number of boys from the school qualifying for IC4A in school history. It was honestly a shame thing didn’t work out because when he left, the team was never the same. Only a handful graduated and only two qualified for IC4A. Next to the sweatshirt were medical papers for a removal surgery scheduled in two days. What the hell, Jesse.
“Jesse.” Sage asked with more force. “Are you getting surgery in two days?” He paused and looked at me. “Yea.” She said, “Should you be here?” He shrugged, “Maybe.” She asked, “Why would you do be here?” He spoke with confidence as he handed her an empty bottle of vodka. Which was strange because everyone knew he didn’t drink. Scattered on the passenger seat were multicolored pills. He said, “Remember all those posts about just tired of being sick, tired of struggling?” Sage did. He continued, “Well, I was tired enough to want it to be over. If it wasn’t for a close friend of mine well. . . it was hard. I mean these legs were what got me to where I was and it was and still his hard to move sometimes. And I’ve seen people like me waste away and I didn’t want to be remembered that way. I already had the bottle finished done when my boy called. Told me, ‘You ain’t goin nowhere. God is not done with you. Somewhere out there is an unborn child who need your mentoring the same way you helped my son.’ He wouldn’t let me get out and that’s what I needed. A good ole tongue lashing.” Sage didn’t know how to respond. She just stared at the bottle with the remnant smell of strong alcohol slowly reaching her nose and counted the number of pills scattered on the passenger seat.
She imagined what her life would have been without Jesse in it. There’d be no UConn, no Winston. There may not have ever been a track life after Villanova. After Villanova, many people forgot about her because she wasn’t the big name she was back in New Jersey, except for Jesse. She never gave up because Jesse never gave up on her. Like all those athletes in the photo, he made her who was already good better. If someone of his status could believe in her, she had no reason not believe in herself. He invested his name on her at times, even when it cost him. She remembered the day the Villanova coach stopped working with Jesse because he helped her transfer. For moments like that, she felt motivated to represent him well.
She looked on the ground of the backseat of the car one last time. Under the St. Peter’s sweatshirt and about three or four of those pills was his watch. Funny, Sage thought, sometimes what you are looking for can be hidden under your worst experiences. “Hey, look what I found,” Sage said as she picked up the watch. She also picked up the pills around and under the sweatshirt. She glanced around the room for others but that was all. Jesse saw the pills in her hand. “Hand them over. I’m throwing them out. Baby girl, Jesse ain’t going nowhere.” She smiled and handed them too him. He picked the remaining pills in the passenger seat and wrapped them in a sheet of paper. he took the watch from Sage and the two stepped out of the car. He locked the car and walked with Sage back to the indoor track. The Boston air was cold, but Sage didn’t mind. Sometimes the small, temporary inconveniences don’t matter when you’re with the people who matter most.IN the entrance of the facility was a garbage can where he threw away the vodka bottle and balled up paper. “Aight girl,” Jesse took the watch from me. “You got anymore races?”, he asked. Sage replied, “No, I think coach a little mad at me from the open 800.” Jesse began to walk in the opposite direction once the two made it inside, “Aight well do well.” Sage began walking towards the area where the team sat. “Thanks Jesse.”