Gordon's first title with a new publisher, Pop was released in 2010 from HarperCollins. Pop is Gordon's latest young adult title, and focuses on the unusual friendship between a past pro football player and a recently transplanted high school student trying out for the school team.
Marcus is happy to have somebody to practice with, and has a ball interacting with his new friend, Charlie Popovich, but as time goes on, he can't help but noticing that Charlie really seems to be a little strange. As time goes on, Marcus realizes Charlie is suffering from Early Onset Alzheimer's, a fact which his family is struggling to keep hidden.
Marcus means no harm, but his friendship with Charlie is bringing Marcus into conflict with the ex-ball player's family, the football team, a grumpy exterminator, and even the law. Marcus may have to make some considered choices in regards to his own future, if he wants to keep up his friendship with Charlie!
From the Book:
Jordan killed the motor on his Vespa and surveyed the flowering shrubs and tall
maples surrounding him. Nice. Picturesque, even.
More like the Twilight Zone.
For starters, the name – Three Alarm Park, after some chili cook-off that used to be held here in the sixties or something.
He jumped down, pulling the gym bag off his shoulders. From it, he produced the items that would turn Three Alarm Park into a practice facility – a regulation football, a length of rope, and a round plastic picture frame with the glass knocked out.
He looked around, noting that the only other living creature was a squirrel. This was the fourth straight day he’d trained here, and he’d yet to exchange a word of conversation with anybody but himself. Dead summer – great time to move to a new state. Thanks, Mom.
He tossed the rope over a high branch and strung up the picture frame hoop. Then he started the target swinging gently and retreated about ten yards.
Just like a million times before, he took three steps back and let fly.
The ball sizzled, a perfect spiral, missing the hoop by at least four feet.
Marcus snorted. Lonely and lousy. A one-two punch. With the added insult of having to chase down your own pass so you could mess it up all over again.
He worked his way up to 4-for-10, and then 11-for-20, and broke out the water bottle to give himself a party. Here in the middle of the open field, the only protection from the August sun was a large granite modern art statue titled Remembrance, which looked like a titanic paper airplane had fallen from the sky and buried its nose in the grass at a forty-five-degree angle. A river of perspiration streamed down the middle of his back. So he did what any self-respecting football player would do. He cranked it up a notch. Football was the only sport where adverse weather conditions made you go harder instead of quitting. He’d still be out here if it was ten degrees, and he was slogging through knee-deep snow and blizzard conditions.
Intermission – a dozen laps of the field to really feel the pain. Then he was throwing again, from different angles and further away. His completion percentage went down, but his determination never wavered. There was something about launching a football thirty-five or forty yards and having it go exactly where you aimed it. To a quarterback, it was as basic as breathing.
Sucking in a lungful of moist heavy air, Marcus pumped once and unleashed the longest pass of the day, a loose spiral that nevertheless seemed to have a lot of power behind it. It sailed high over the apex of the Paper Airplane before beginning its downward trajectory toward the hoop.
For the first time in four days, he spied another human being in the park. The figure was just a blur across his field of vision. It leaped into the air, picked off the pass, and kept on going.
The receiver made a wide U-turn, and, grinning triumphantly, jogged up to Marcus.
Marcus smiled too. “Nice catch, bro –” His voice trailed off.
He was looking at a middle-aged man, probably around fifty years old.But the guy ran like a gazelle and caught with sure hands, tucking the ball in tight as he ran. He was also tall and built like an redwood. He had definitely played this game before.
“Sorry,” Marcus added, embarrassed.
“For what?” The man flipped him the ball. “Making you look bad?”
“I just thought – never mind. My name’s Marcus. Marcus Jordan.”
With lightning hands, the man knocked the ball loose, scooped it up on the bounce, and bellowed, “Go deep!”
Starved for company, Marcus did not have to be asked twice. He took off downfield, glancing over his shoulder.
“No – deep!”
“I’m running out of park!” Marcus shouted, but kept on going, his breath growing short. Another backward glance. The ball was on its way. Marcus broke into a full sprint. The old guy had an arm like a cannon!
He left his feet in a desperation dive. For an instant, the ball was right there on his fingertips. He had it –
The ground swung up and slammed him, and the pass bounced away. He lay there for a moment, hyperventilating and spitting out turf. The next thing he saw was the fifty-year-old, beaming and pulling him back to his feet.
“Way to miss everything.”
“You overthrew me a little,” Marcus defended himself.
The man plucked the ball off the grass. “You couldn’t catch a cold, Mac.”
“It’s Marcus,” he amended. “And you are …”
The old guy scowled. “Your worst nightmare if you don’t quit pulling my chain.”
Marcus flushed. “What should I call you?”
“Try Charlie, stupid. Heads!” He punted the ball straight up in the air.
The kick was very high, silhouetted against the cobalt blue sky, tiny and soaring.
Marcus was instantly on board, shuffling first one way and then the other as he tried to predict where it would come down. For some reason, it was very important to make this catch, especially since he’d screwed up the other one. It was his natural competitiveness, but there was something more. This Charlie character might have been weird, but his enthusiasm sucked you in.
The ball plunged down and Marcus gathered it into his arms.
The impact was so jarring, so unexpected, that there wasn’t even time to register what was happening to him. Charlie rammed a rock-hard shoulder into his sternum and dropped him where he stood. The ball squirted loose, but Marcus wasn’t even aware of it. He lay like a stone on the grass, ears roaring, trying to keep from throwing up his breakfast.
Gasping, he scrambled to his feet, squaring off against his companion. “What was that for?”
“I love the pop! Sometimes you actually hear it go pop!”
“That was the sound of my head coming off,” Marcus muttered.
“Come on, you here to play, or what?” Charlie tucked the ball under one arm and charged forward like a freight train, picking up speed.
Marcus was stunned. He’s crazy! Followed by another thought: He’s an old man. What am I afraid of?
Marcus held his ground, bouncing lightly on the balls of his feet, ready to strike. As a quarterback, tackling had never been at the top of his resume, but he’d gone through the drills like everybody else. He focused on his opponent’s hips, hesitating at the sheer size of the guy, and the power and athleticism of his stride. This was going to hurt, probably more than a little. Swallowing his nervousness, he sprang, catching Charlie just above the knees.
Hard contact resonated up and down Marcus’s body. The man was a strong runner with a surprisingly low center of gravity. In the end, though, physics was on Marcus’s side. The textbook hit knocked Charlie’s legs right out from under him.
As they crunched to the ground, Marcus’s pain mingled with remorse. What if he’d hurt the man?
But Charlie was cackling with glee. “That’s more like it!”
Relieved, Marcus grabbed the ball away and barked, “Now, you go deep!” It never once crossed his mind that this fifty-something wouldn’t comply.
Charlie didn’t disappoint. He was off and galloping. Not only was he going along with it, but he seemed to be running an elaborate pass pattern. He bumped an imaginary defender at five yards, then faked an “out” before breaking down the middle, running full bore.
Marcus got so involved in watching that he almost forgot to throw. But he did – a terrible pass that was sure to sail ten feet over Charlie’s head.
“Sorry –” His breath caught in his throat as he realized that his companion wasn’t stopping.
Adjusting his route, Charlie scampered right up one of the granite flukes on the Remembrance sculpture. Close to the top, he leaped, snatching the ball out of thin air as it sailed over the Paper Airplane. Marcus waited for the old guy to come crashing to the ground, twenty feet below. Instead, the toes of his sneakers somehow found the narrow ledge in the stone, and he landed, swaying as he struggled to maintain balance.
The cry of triumph was ripped from Marcus’s throat before the event had even fully registered. It had to be the greatest individual effort he’d seen since taking up football. Quarterback and receiver celebrated like this was the winning touchdown in the Super Bowl.
Nor did Charlie feel any need to come down from his tenuous perch on the statue. He began a victory-dance right where he was.
“I’m not calling the ambulance when you slip!” warned Marcus, laughing.
It only made the old guy show off even more. He was as sure-footed as a mountain goat, soft-shoeing as he waved to an imaginary crowd.
Time-tested football strategy held that, when the passing game is working, you launch an air war. They ran slants, curls, posts and flags, making acrobatic catches and spectacular wipeouts. After a week of only his mother and his own thoughts for company, Marcus wasn’t inclined to ask too many questions, like how come this middle-aged guy had nothing better to do than toss a ball around with a teenager?
“Over the middle!” Charlie commanded, waving Marcus into a crossing pattern about fifteen yards deep.
Charlie’s muscular arm snapped forward. The pass was on its way, drilling through the air at bullet speed. Marcus reached for it, but he misjudged the angle. It sizzled through his hands, leaving a trail of smoke behind it. Frozen in their tracks, he and Charlie watched it leave the park.
They didn’t see it happen, but the sound was unmistakable. When they got to the fence, there sat the football, in the passenger seat of a Toyota Camry, clearly visible through the shattered side window.
“Great,” groaned Marcus. This definitely wasn’t the introduction to the community he’d had in mind. “I guess we have to leave a note and offer to pay –”
Nothing could have prepared him for his companion’s reaction to the crisis. Charlie took one look at the broken car window, vaulted the gate, and pounded down the street at an astonishing rate of speed. He never looked back. In fifteen seconds, he was simply a retreating dot.
Of all the strange things about a strange person, this one had to take the prize. Here was the teenager, ready to own up and make restitution. And here was the mature adult, fleeing the scene like an irresponsible kid.
RAIDERS LOOK TO REPEAT PERFECTION
What’s better than perfect? Just ask quarterback Troy Popovich and the defending Central New York champion Raiders of David Nathan Aldrich High School. The Little Team That Could finished with an 11-0 record and championship gold last season. Hard to top? Not to the boys from Kennesaw. With only four departing seniors, the Raiders think they can run the table again this year, and carve themselves a place in Central New York football history.
The quest for double perfection begins on August 18th, with the opening of summer workouts. Good luck Raiders …
week, when the movers had unloaded the truck, Marcus’s first act of unpacking
had been to tape that clipping to his mirror. It was the one consolation for
pulling up roots in the only place he’d known in sixteen years of life,
and laying them down on the opposite side of the country – he’d
be going to a school with a first-class football program.
Mom had made that article from the Kennesaw Advocate the keystone of her sales pitch. By that time, she’d already known that the Advocate would be her new employer. Of course, her job as staff photographer was just how Barbara Jordan paid the bills. She had little interest in the inevitable prize-winning turnips and golf-ball-sized hailstones that dominated local news. She was putting together a book on the megalithic boulders scattered across upstate New York by the receding glaciers of the Ice Age. That was the reason behind their move to Kennesaw in the first place – pictures of rocks. The fact that it put fifteen hundred miles between them and Comrade Stalin – well, that was just gravy. When your ex was a control freak, distance was a good thing.
The good Comrade, Marcus’s father, had responded to the divorce with his usual flexibility. No joint custody, no weekend visits – Just a laundry list of all the material advantages Marcus would enjoy if he forgot he ever had a mother. The Vespa had been the primo goodie on an irresistible menu. Stalin had even tried to demand it back when Marcus had opted to stay with Mom. Classy.
The purr of its engine had become a bittersweet sound. Bitter because of the bike’s role in the family breakup, and sweet because – well, it was pretty sweet. A Vespa was technically a scooter, but it could move. Back in Olathe, Marcus had earned himself three tickets. Now he was speeding again, far from Kansas, his bulky equipment bag balanced on his shoulders, streaking through town to Aldrich High School.
The sight of players on the field threw him. He’d called the athletic office three times to confirm the eleven o’clock start. Yet here it was, only ten-thirty, and a workout was already in progress.
He ditched the Vespa in the parking lot and took off at a run, heavy pads bouncing against his shoulders. Students were scattered around the sidelines and bleachers. On the field, coaches and trainers were leading the players through stretches and calisthenics. Good news. He hadn’t missed much.
He turned to the first spectator he saw, a girl in a tank top and jean shorts. “Tryouts?”
He might as well have been asking about the nuclear launch codes. Her expression was completely blank.
Undaunted, Marcus pulled aside a tall kid in pads and a scrimmage shirt. “Where’s the sign-up table?”
The kid looked him over. “Don’t know what you’re talking about, man,” he said blandly and jogged away.
Marcus stood frowning by the entrance to the locker room hut, when a brunette in a cheerleading outfit strode up to him, her very pretty features hardened into an all-business expression.
“How long does it take to get a bag of footballs?” she demanded. In a single motion, she wrenched the duffel off his shoulder and unzipped. A sweat and bleach-stained jockstrap tumbled out and fell at her feet.
She glared at Marcus. “Cute.”
“I think you’ve got me confused with somebody else,” Marcus told her. “I just came here to try out.”
A freckle-faced player who seemed like endless shoulders turned around. “You sure you’re in the right place, man?”
“Let me guess – you’re just field-testing your Halloween costume then?” Marcus returned, a little annoyed.
Another Raider stepped forward, his helmet under his arm in a classic all-American pose. It was obvious from the deference shown by the other students that the newcomer was a big man on campus. His scrimmage jersey bore the number seven, which, coupled with the respect he commanded, almost certainly designated him the Quarterback.
Self-consciously, Marcus plucked his cup off the turf and stuffed it back in the bag.
“Is that how you win friends and influence people?” the QB asked Marcus.
Marcus took a deep breath. “I don’t want a fight. I’m just looking for the tryouts.”
“You found them – sort of.”
“Well, where do I sort of check in?”
“We went eleven-and-oh last season,” number seven told him.
“I heard about that.”
“We only lost four seniors and replaced them with backups who were just as strong.”
“You’re good,” Marcus concluded.
“If you were us, would you be making changes?”
“That depends,” Marcus said. “If you’ve got somebody better, why not?”
Number seven’s eyes flashed. “And that’s supposed to be you?”
Marcus shrugged. “That’s why you have tryouts. To pick the best.”
“You’re looking at the best,” number seven stated flatly.
“You’ll have to forgive Troy,” the cheerleader put in sarcastically. “He’s overcome with the wonderfulness of himself.”
Troy cast her a warning glare, and she smiled back sweetly. Marcus upgraded his first impression. Pretty was an understatement. She was a knockout.
With effort, he tore his eyes off her. “I’m not saying you’re no good,” he told Troy. “I’m just saying I should have a shot.”
The freckle-faced shoulders got in Marcus’s face. “That eleven-and-oh last year was thanks to Troy! His old man –”
“Shut up, Kevin.” Troy interrupted.
Kevin backed off, but he didn’t back down. “We’ve got a chance at another perfect season! We’re not risking that because of some newbie.”
“What’s going on here?” bawled a voice with the tone and timbre of a buzz saw. Coach Barker muscled into the group. “Football is played with hands, feet, and body. The only time your mouth is open is so you can stick your guard in!”
“Got a wannabe here, coach,” Troy said apologetically.
The coach was an ordinary-size man with a massive head that resembled an Easter Island monument. It pivoted on his slender neck until his sharp gaze was focused on Marcus.
“What’s your name, son?”
“Marcus Jordan. I just moved here a couple of weeks ago. I’ll be a junior.”
The coach sized him up. “What’s your experience?”
“I QB-ed Junior Varsity at my old school in Kansas. Set a county record for total yards.”
“A JV record,” Troy pointed out.
Marcus addressed the coach. “I know you have a tight-knit unit, and I’m not trying to mess that up. I just want a chance to show what I can do.”
“I’m always looking for new talent,” Barker agreed. “Tell you what. We’ll set a time for you to work out with the JV squad. If you’re as good as you say, you’ll play JV this season. Then next year, it’ll be wide open for you after these guys graduate in June.”
Marcus shook his head. “If I can hack it now, I shouldn’t have to wait.”
“It’s a public school, coach.” The cheerleader noted.
Troy snorted. “Yeah, you’re such a football expert from shaking your butt!”
“You never complained,” she shot right back.
“All right, fair enough,” the coach decided. “Suit up, and we’ll give you a spin.”
Barker’s face flamed red. “Doesn’t anybody do what I say anymore? Get back on the field! I want to see wind-sprints.” He turned to the cheerleader. “Alyssa, show Marcus where he can change.”
“With pleasure,” she announced, directing a pointed grin at Troy. She took Marcus by the hand and led him into the low hut that housed the locker rooms.
Marcus looked down at the spectacle of her fingers intertwined with his. “Sounds like you and Troy know each other pretty well.” An over-the-shoulder glance confirmed that the quarterback was doing more glowering than sprinting.
“We’re kind of on again, off again,” she admitted blithely. “And on again. And off again. You get the picture.”
He did. “How about right now?”
“Right now I’m staying away from stuck-up quarterbacks who think they own the world.” She cast him a look that threatened to melt the fillings in his teeth. “But I’m keeping an open mind.”
She kicked loudly at a door marked HOME and yelled, “If it’s hanging out, cover it up! I’m coming in!” She marched him into the deserted locker room.
Marcus tossed his bag on the bench and waited for Alyssa to leave so he could change. Instead, she made herself at home on the bench.
“I double as equipment manager. So if you’ve got any equipment you want me to manage … I’m kidding!” she laughed, seeing him blush. “A yokel like you is going to get eaten alive at DNA. What brings you to our little moonscape?”
Marcus shrugged his shoulder pads on over his T-shirt. “My mom’s a photographer. This area’s important to a book she’s working on.”
“And your dad?”
“Out of the picture.” He studied the pockmarks on the concrete floor. “I have to take off my pants now.”
“Buzz-kill,” she grumbled, heading for the door.
Marcus tried not to watch her go – and failed.
Copyright © 2009 by Gordon Korman, used by permission