I miss fresh fruit.
Bananas, when they're well past green and just starting to go brown. Soft but not mushy. Only the slightest of spots beginning to show. The pulp just slightly sweet but not enough that it felt like I was eating candy.
I really miss a good banana. Used to eat them three at a time. I could eat a whole bunch some days. Right now, I could eat ten bunches.
But, of course, I can't have a banana. They don't exist anymore. Not for a long time.
Not since The Sanctions.
The sign ahead welcomes us to Binghamton. I'm surprised we've already made it here. Then again I realize I don't actually know how long we've been out here. Maybe I'm just surprised to see some semblance of civilization.
Or at least what used to count for it.
There's only five of us now. There's Mike Hopkins, whom you might remember as the assistant coach on the Syracuse basketball team and heir apparent to Jim Boeheim's throne. Remember when that mattered? He and Gene Josafonte, who worked in marketing or branding or some shit for SU Athletics, both made it out together somehow. They claim to not know what happened to Old Man Boeheim but there's a part of me that knows they're do. They're just not telling me.
There's Alex Skippersly, or Skippy, as we like to call him. He was a freshman at Syracuse. Says he was in geology class when the sanctions hit. Rocks for Jocks we used to call it. Kid had his whole life ahead of him. Hell, we all did.
And then there's J-Bizzle. He's African-American. That's all I know.
Oh and me, Obadiah Goodman. But you can call be Obie. I was just your average Syracuse basketball fan. Had season tickets and everything. Back in the good times.
There used to be more of us. We picked up a whole slew of folks in Cortland. Then, somewhere near Castle Creek, the Sanctioners found us. It was a massacre. It's amazing the five of us even made it. We didn't actually see the rest of them get "vacated," but, we know they did. The Sanctioners don't take prisoners.
You'd have to have a soul to do that.
They used to be just like us. They all worked for the NCAA. Just decent people doing their jobs. When the sanctions hit Syracuse, no one seemed bothered. I remember all those columnists, praising the NCAA and demanding that punishment be even swifter and stronger.
After that, it all happened so fast. North Carolina got sanctioned. Then a bunch of small schools I'd never heard of. John Smith College or something like that. And West Tennessee State. Or was it East Tennessee State? Hell, doesn't matter anymore. Tennessee hasn't existed for eight months now so directions don't make any difference.
Some say that there was some kind of radioactive spill at NCAA headquarters. Others say there were genetically-modified chemicals in all those lobster salads they were eating. Whatever it was, it changed the NCAA people. It mutated them. No longer human. Now they were something else.
By the time anyone realized what was happening, the entire system fell apart. Sanctions hit not just colleges but entire towns, cities, states. They say Alabama went dark first. Then Louisiana. The President went into hiding not long after that. He hasn't emerged since. Probably never will.
I was watching ESPN when it went down for the last time. Skip Bayless was arguing with Stephen A. Smith about the effect The Sanctioners would have on the upcoming college football season. They had this graphic up asking the question, "Would this be happening if Tim Tebow was President?" Chris Broussard stopped by to say that it was possible this was the fault of gay people. And then that was it. Static for a few days and then nothing.
College football season never started either.
It's November now. Or maybe it's December. I don't really know. Those are just human constructs meant to assign a name to something nameless...time. Name or not, it's a valuable resource and we're running out of it. The five of us are en route to New York City. Last we heard, it was the only safe zone left for people like us. "The Sanctioned," some call us.
The Damned, more like it.
We stay off the highways since The Sanctioners know to look there. You'd be amazed how much of Upstate New York is still forest. We should know, we've been trudging through it for...I don't know how long. Skippy's leg isn't looking too good. A Sanctioner clipped him before we got away. Vacated some toes from the looks of it. He's a tough kid though. He keeps moving.
Josafonte keeps pulling me and Hop aside, telling us we're gonna have to "deal" with the kid. That's he slowing us down. We keep telling him to zip it and keep moving, but I can tell Hopkins is getting antsy too.
For reasons I can't understand, Josafonte keeps saying we should be wearing grey. I tell him that we'd stand out amongst the trees and he says that's the point of branding, to stand out. That I don't understand how it works. I think he might be losing it. In fact, I'm pretty sure of it. Keeps mumbling about how we'll be welcomed in New York City because of all the marketing Syracuse did there. "We're their college team, remember?"
I'm worried about how I'm going to fend off a Sanctioner with just a knife. He's worried about slogans. He's right about one thing...we might need to "deal" with someone soon. Just not Skippy.
We pass Binghamton in the early evening. Just smoke and debris everywhere. Seems the Sanctioners remembered Kevin Broadus's little party a few years back and wanted to make sure they salted the place. They did a good job. Thorough. We didn't see anyone. Didn't expect to.
We camp in a small park south of town. J-Bizzle says it's just a few miles to the Pennsylvania border. He grew up around here so he remembers. To be honest, until that moment, I forgot he was even here. He's the African-American guy, after all.
Coach Hop regales us with tales of Syracuse games past over a crackling campfire. He tells us stories you wouldn't believe. About the NCAA violations that they never even found out about. People that Old Man Boeheim strangled for sport. Is it true or just the ramblings of a damaged mind? I don't know.
All the while, Hop keeps messing with his compound bow. I'm not sure where he picked it up but it's come in handy more than a few times. He's a great shot and he's kept us well fed because of it. Even took down a couple Sanctioners who were unlucky enough to cross our path by themselves.
He would have made a great head coach. In another world and another time, perhaps.
That night, we awake to screams. Skippy is yelling bloody murder and I don't see him. He's not at the camp with the rest of us and I don't understand why.
"I DEMAND AN APPEAL!" He won't stop screaming. "I WANT TO APPEAL!!!"
No one appeals. Not anymore. This is not good.
We scramble for Skippy and we find him about a hundred yards from camp. Two Sanctioners are standing over his bloody body. One of them speaks, and as many times as I've heard their voices, I just can't ever get used to it. Like a thousand knives jamming into my ear at once, sending shockwaves up and down my spine.
"You have committed egregious violations, human," it screeches. "What say you before we announce judgment?"
Used to be you had at least 120 days before they announced their judgment. Sometimes way longer. Nowadays, you're lucky if you get 120 seconds.
"I didn't do anything! I appeal! I appeal!," cries Skippy.
I run to help him but Josafonte tackles me. Why? I don't understand. "GET OFF ME!," I bellow.
"He's a goner," Josafonte says. "Let's live to make our brand on another day."
I can't shake him, he's got me pinned. I'm helpless as the Sanctioners pronounce judgment.
"You are hereby sanctioned, human. You are now life ineligible."
Skippy screams. I scream. And then one of the Sanctioners screams.
An arrow lodged in his skull, the Sanctioner who pronounced the death sentence falls to the ground, lifeless. Hopkins emerges from the woods, bow in one hand while the other reaches into his quiver for another. His eyes firmly transfixed on the Sanctioner still alive.
"THIS IS AN NCAA VIOLATION!," the Sanctioner yells. "HALT AT ONCE OR FACE PROBATION!."
Arrow loaded and bow cocked, Coach Hop smiles. "Consider this...a lifetime ban."
That's all I hear. My eyes eventually catch up and see that Hopkins' arrow found purchase in its intended target. The Sanctioners are both dead.
Then again, were they ever really alive?
I elbow Josafonte in his puffy jaw and he tumbles off me. I gather myself and run to Skippy. Hopkins and J-Bizzle, who, again, I totally forgot was there, join me.
"Help...," Skippy wimpers. He's hurt bad. We might have prevented his "ineligibility" but the Sanctioners did some serious vacating before we got there. Blood, guts and God knows what else cover the poor kid.
It takes a moment before I realize Hopkins has said that to me, not Skip.
"What?," I reply. "Go...I'll help him," he says.
It takes me a moment to understand.
"We don't sanction people, Mike."
"He's already been sanctioned," Coach Hop replies. "I'm just giving him the ultimate appeal."
A part of me wants to say no. To tell Hopkins to walk away and help Skippy back to his feet. But another part of me knows better.
I reach down and grab Skippy's good hand. I squeeze firmly. He cries and so do I. "I'm sorry, kid."
I walk away, followed by J-Bizzle. We get back to camp and Josafonte is already there, warming himself in front of the fire. "Damn shame," he says, sipping coffee out of the Nike coffee mug he brought with him. "But at least now we can move faster."
I know now I can trust Josafonte about as much as I used to be able to trust Syracuse Football to score inside the red zone. Speaking of red zones, that's all I'm seeing.
"Easy," says J-Bizzle. "This ain't the time."
He's right. Also, I'm really going to have to remember that he's here and a vital member of our team.
Hopkins returns a few minutes after that. He's cleaning his arrows as he walks. If he feels terrible about what he just had to do, his face doesn't betray it. What happened to the fun-loving guy who used to pal around with players and crack jokes?
The Sanctions happened. That's what. They changed everything. And everyone.
We cross over into Pennsylvania around noon. A thought occurs to me and I chuckle to myself.
"What's so funny?" Didn't realize Hopkins was behind me.
"I was just thinking how, you know, it would be a big shock to a lot of people to learn that you just left the state of New York before January."
Hop doesn't smile.
"You know, we left New York plenty of times. We played in tournaments. We went to Kansas. We went to Florida. We went to Arkansas. We went to Maui. Maui for Chrissake!"
"Okay, it's just a joke," I say.
"I'm not laughing, am I?" He brushes past me and keeps walking into the Pennsylvania woods.
No, he's not laughing. And maybe I shouldn't be. Not in this world.
Not after The Sanctions...
STAY TUNED FOR THE EXCITING NEXT CHAPTER OF 'THE WALKING SANCTIONED'