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Summer Reading: New Books With a Jersey Connection -- 'A Chance to Win'

In 1988, three years after he was thrown out of school, Rodney’s mother talked him into enrolling at Essex County College, where she and his sister Barbara were already taking classes. He signed up for a program in which he would earn his GED and an associate degree, putting him on track to attend Rutgers-Newark, where he hoped to play baseball. Rodney received a $2,500 student loan for books and supplies, which he promptly cashed and took to Washington Heights. He continued dealing as he attended school. That lasted about a year, until September 26, 1989, when he was pulled over in a cab that was driving him home from Penn Station. Rodney saw the lights through the rear window and started stuffing his stash under the seats. The officers ordered him out of the car, slammed him against the trunk, and started searching him. Rodney wrestled free and took off running. He made it a few blocks before officers tackled him and fished two bulging bags of coke from his pants. He was twenty-two.

Rodney sat in the county jail for months, unable to make bail, while his mother enlisted friends at Essex County College to help him. Prosecutors offered him a deal that would put him behind bars for a year, but Rodney refused and his mother’s allies could not persuade prosecutors to go easy on him. On the eve of his trial, during which he would likely be convicted, Rodney told prosecutors he’d reconsidered, but their first offer was off the table; this time, they were not nearly as generous. A judge sentenced Rodney to five years behind bars, with a minimum of eighteen months before he could be considered eligible for parole.

He ended up at a work camp for nonviolent offenders in the farmlands of western New Jersey. Because he stayed out of trouble, he was accepted into an “intensive-supervision program” that allowed him to return home early. The rules were strict: he had to find a job, submit to drug testing three times a week, attend group meetings, keep a curfew. His mother persuaded the Zion Towers management company to hire him as a maintenance man.

Around that time, Rodney started getting stopped in the street by strangers who said they knew him. Their conversations were always the same: they asked how his mother was doing, remarked how tall he’d gotten, and told stories about playing with him when they were kids. “You probably don’t remember me,” they said, “but when you was a baby, your mother used to bring you around and you’d be playing with my brothers and sisters, and I used to be babysitting you.” Rodney was baffled by these encounters, but didn’t let on. He just nodded and said Okay, uh-huh, see you around. But as he continued running into these same people, Rodney started asking them questions, and they were happy to talk. They said his mother had spent a lot of time with their father when they were young. In fact, their father, they said, was his father—and his youngest sister, Darlene’s, too.

Clara had always claimed that her husband, James, was the father of all her children. She still refused to talk about him, though, and Rodney never asked. He remembered how nervous the subject made her. She didn’t handle stress well—she still suffered the aftereffects of stomach ulcers, was prone to depression, and practically chain-smoked—and Rodney didn’t want to make things worse. But this new information made him wonder. He told his sister Darlene about it, and she said the purported siblings had approached her, too. She’d asked Clara about it, and Clara had insisted it wasn’t true. But the more Darlene spoke to these people, the more she believed their story.

Rodney felt conflicted. He wanted to know the truth, but he didn’t want his mother to think he doubted her. He confided to a family friend, who confronted Clara. Clara wouldn’t answer, and the next time Rodney saw her, she looked wounded. “Why did you have to mention that?” she said. She began to cry. Rodney apologized and promised himself he’d never bring it up again. If she ever wants to tell me, she’ll tell me, he thought.

Rodney went on to earn his GED and got back into shape playing on adult-league baseball and football teams. One day, he came across a newspaper article about the New York Mets holding open tryouts. He sent an application and was rewarded with an invitation. His parole officer granted him a one-day leave, and Clara joined Rodney for the bus trip. He arrived at a minor league park in Albany, New York, with about five hundred other hopefuls. At twenty-five, this was his last shot.

When his number came up, Rodney took the mound and threw about fifteen pitches, including five fastballs that clocked in the high eighties, far short of the speeds he’d hit as a teenager, but impressive. A scout asked how old he was. When Rodney told him, he looked disappointed. “I wish you’d come out here when you were a little younger,” he said. Rodney tried to take it as a compliment and left to get back home before nightfall. A few weeks later, he got a letter saying four prospects at the camp had been offered a chance at a pro contract, and he wasn’t one of them. They invited him to another tryout, but Rodney didn’t go. At his graduation from the intensive supervision program, the judge congratulated him and urged him to stay straight. Instead, Rodney went right back to dealing drugs.

From A Chance to Win, by Jonathan Schuppe. Publisher Henry Holt and Co. Copyright © 2013 by Jonathan Schuppe

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