Ping

“Nothing ventured, nothing gained.” I toss Hector a challenging look.

“You are one crazy-ass motherfucker.”

“Hey . . . I’m a pioneer — going where no man has gone before.”

I take one of the sixty-four-ounce Styrofoam cups from the holder under the slushie machine. It’s one of those fancy ones that can make you a frozen beverage in any combo of thirty-six flavors.

You’re only supposed to be able to combine two of the flavors at once, but I’ve hacked the automated limit. As Hector watches, I slap my hand over the little white bubbles and press down all the buttons at once.

Thirty-six bubbles light up — sour apple through watermelon. The machine hums and then groans, and a stream of brown slush shoots out of the spout.

Hector is a big dude — six feet tall and over three hundred pounds — but he’s a gentle giant. He watches in horror and wrinkles his nose as the machine dispenses my slushie. “You nasty.”

“You jealous.”

“Don’t you have your interview today?” he asks. “Reebok or Nike or —”

“Nike,” I say with a grin. “They want me . . . They just don’t know it yet.”

Hector laughs a deep rumbling laugh that seems to fill the whole store.

It’s the middle of the day, and the place is dead. In the mornings and evenings, the store is hopping. People swing by to charge their cars and come inside to grab a drink or a snack while they wait. I don’t mind when it’s slow. Usually I study, but when Hector and I are scheduled together, we get up to all kinds of mischief.

Suddenly the machine groans, and the stream of frozen goo splutters in my cup. It makes a high-pitched whirring noise, and Hector and I exchange nervous looks.

“Shit.”

“You broke it!” Hector moans.

“Nah.”

But a second later, the spluttering stream of slushie stops. The machine continues to hum, but all that comes out is a fine spray of flavored water.

“You broke it!”

“No,” I say. “I very helpfully exposed a weakness in its functionality.”

Hector groans. “Brinkmann is gonna be pissed!”

“Not if I get the slushie people out here first.”

Hector shoots me a disbelieving look. We both know the slushie people aren’t that quick. Brinkmann is definitely going to find out. I glance at the clock. My interview starts in forty-five minutes.

“Go,” says Hector, rolling his eyes in a good-natured way.

“What? No, I’ll —”

“Go. If Brinkmann comes in, I’ll tell him a kid did it.”

“Thank you, Hector. You are a prince among men!”

“Tell that to Bernice.”

I shoot Hector one last “I owe you one” look and hurry to the break room to clock out. “A kid did it” is one of our tried-and-tested excuses for when we break shit — I just hope that Brinkmann doesn’t decide to check the security cams this time.

I jet out the front doors to Kimberly — my banana-yellow Fiat 500 with blue duct tape along the bumper. She’s from the early 2040s, but she still purrs like a kitten.

I hit the ten toward Culver City and throw her in auto mode. I pull off my rumpled E-Z-Go polo, slink out of my jeans, and toss my scuffed-up Converse onto the floorboard. My nice shirt and slacks are laid neatly across the back seat, ironed by my mom. The pants are about half an inch too short, but I don’t think anyone will notice.

Kimberly slows down as we hit a patch of traffic, and I catch a scandalized look from an old woman on my left. I’m driving in my underwear, but I just give her a wave and climb over the center console to reach my good clothes.

I roll down all the windows as I smear on some deodorant and get dressed to impress. Kimberly’s AC has been busted since I’ve had her, and it’s summertime in LA.

I can feel myself sweating through my button-down the second I put it on, but I keep the windows down to air out any fresh sweat. I told my mom I wasn’t going to wear my funeral shoes to Nike, but she slipped them into my car anyhow and told me to look sharp.

Instead, I reach for the pair of red leather retro high-top Air Jordans. I found them at a garage sale in West Hollywood and snagged them for ten dollars. The second I put them on, I feel like a million bucks.

I pull into Nike’s corporate office two minutes before my interview and grab my rumpled résumé off the dash. I check my reflection in Kimberly’s window one last time and head for the shiny glass doors.

My Air Jordans are on fire. Walking in them feels like walking on a cloud.

I breeze through the front door and get an automatic ripple of excitement. I’m standing in a sleek open reception area with a polished concrete floor.

The walls are white, the ceiling is high, and there’s a pearly cutout of the Nike swoosh directly across from me. The wall to my left is made of shiny white blocks, and every third block is a glass case with a pair of vintage Nike shoes under its own little spotlight.

I approach the desk, and the screen under the swoosh flickers to life. Instead of a regular ol’ receptionist, the image of Rick Royce appears.

I can hardly believe it. It’s The Thunder himself — the best ball player since Michael or LeBron.

“Welcome to Nike. How can I help you?”

“Chao Ping,” I say, a little nervous to be talking to an AI version of my idol. “I have an interview.”

“Hey, Chao. What’s up?” says Rick Royce.

“I have an interview,” I repeat.

“You’ve got an interview? Cool, cool. Just have a seat, relax, and one of my associates will be with you shortly.”

“Thanks, Mr. Thunder.”

I sit down and wipe my sweaty palms on my pants. Rick Royce disappears, and a moment later, a human woman appears on the other side of the room. She’s got long blond hair, a gray pants suit, and the height and gait of a former basketball player.

“Chao?”

“That’s me,” I say, springing to my feet and thrusting out a hand for her to shake. I hope it’s not sweaty. “You can call me Ping. Everyone does.”

“Good to meet you, Mr. Ping. Right this way.”

She leads me down a hallway filled with black-and-white pictures of famous basketball players, and my nerves ratchet up a notch. It’s like being scrutinized by the titans.

Luckily, we end up in a plain windowless conference room. Another HR person is there — a pale dude with small hands who’s only, like, five-eight. He definitely never played ball.

He stands up and shakes my hand. We all introduce ourselves, and I take a seat across from them.

“Nice shoes,” says the woman — Carly, I think.

“Thanks,” I say. “I collect the old Air Jordans. I’m kind of a purist.”

“Very nice.” She glances down at my résumé, which probably has little sweaty fingerprints embedded in the paper. “Looks like you’re graduating soon . . . UCLA?”

“Yes, ma’am. Dual degree in network security and computer programming.”

“Excellent. We are certainly in the market for interns with your exact skill set.”

“Great!” I say. This is already going better than I could have hoped. “I have a lot of ideas for things you guys could be doing.”

Carly glances at the small-handed dude, who’s stayed pretty silent so far.

“I’m thinking you bring back the original Air Jordans, except the reboot is equipped with all the latest tech — sensors embedded in the soles to record your vertical jump, speed, running cadence — you name it. They could sync up with your Optix and tell you when to push it — give you live feedback. It could even have a feature that lets you compare stats with your friends.”

Carly opens her mouth with a look that says she’s about to shut down my idea, so I keep on rolling.

“You could make sweatbands that can tell users what their nutrient levels are, read blood pressure . . . all that good stuff. Or running shoes that clock your miles and sync up with all the digital billboards you pass to give you encouragement from all your favorite ball players.”

“Mr. Ping . . . Mr. Ping,” she says, smiling to herself as she holds up a hand. “I have to stop you right there.” She glances at Mr. Small Hands, who looks as though he’d rather be someplace else. “While these are all . . . innovative ideas, we’re hiring interns to help out on the software side of things.”

“Oh. Well, sure,” I say. “I have lots of ideas for security updates on all your Optix apps. I’m just saying if you needed help on product development . . . You know, in the future.”

There’s that uncomfortable smile again. I don’t think Carly is my biggest fan.

“Mr. Ping, there’s no easy way to say this, but . . .”

“We don’t manufacture athletic wear anymore,” says Mr. Small Hands.

I look from one to the other, equal parts confused and outraged. “What?”

“We’ve found a profitable niche in the fitness technology sector,” says Carly. “Virtual trainers, health and fitness software . . . kind of like what you said. Just without the accessories.”

“Oh,” I say. “Right. So you could put that stuff in shoes. You just haven’t yet.”

Carly pulls her lips tight. This time, it’s not even a smile. “We don’t really make things anymore.”

“Shoes?”

She shakes her head. “No. No shoes. We contract with a company in the Philippines that makes shoes with the Nike logo, but none of that R&D is done in-house anymore.”

“So you don’t make shoes?”

“We don’t. But we have an app that will tell you when you should buy new shoes.”

I just stare at her. Is she serious?

Carly glances once more at Mr. Small Hands. “It was great to meet you, Mr. Ping. We’ll be in touch.”

***

I walk out of Nike in a daze, ignoring the delightful goodbye from the Rick Royce AI.

I can’t look The Thunder in the eye — not even a fake version of him. He’d be devastated to know that the company that made his signature silver-toed high tops is no longer in business.

I get back in Kimberly and head on home. Our house is one of those contemporary split-levels with stonework on the front and a set of double doors at the entry. Kimberly pulls into the driveway, and I get out with considerably less spring in my step. My Jordans aren’t feeling so magical.

I open the door. The shades are drawn and it’s dark inside. I can smell my mom’s spicy chicken legs, but I don’t see her. I flip on a light, look around, and am instantly engulfed by a surge of noise.

“Surprise!”

Faces pop out from every direction. My brothers jump up from behind the couch. My sister shoots out from a potted plant, and my parents stick their heads around the doorway to the kitchen. All my buddies are there — including Hector — and they all look happy to see me.

Suddenly, my parents are standing in front of me with a cake. It says “Congrats, Grad!” and has an iced Nike swoosh in the middle. My friends are slapping me on the back, and my little sis May is hugging me around the knees. She just turned four, and she’s my constant sidekick.

They all start to sing “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow,” and I start to feel terrible.

I may have aced that interview, but somehow I don’t think I got the job. They were all counting on me graduating and getting an internship with Nike, and I feel as though I’ve let them down. How do I tell them that I don’t have a plan — and that I’ll probably be working at the E-Z-Go forever?

Luckily, I don’t have much time to think about that. May is tugging on my dress pants, so I reach down and pick her up so she can help me blow out the candle in the shape of a graduation cap. I don’t officially graduate until next week, but my mom probably planned the party now so it would be a surprise.

“How’d it go?” asks Ji. He’s the brother closest to my age. He’s enrolled in community college.

“All right,” I lie.

“All right?” Ji knows me too well. He knows something is up.

“My boy is fighting off job offers with a stick,” says my mother, shoving the cake at Ji and taking my face between her hands.

“He doesn’t need many jobs,” says my dad. “Just one good job.”

“And he’ll get it,” says my mom, squeezing my cheeks. “You hungry?”

“Starving.”

She smiles. “I made your favorite — spicy chicken.”

“Thanks, Mom.”

“I already ate it all,” says Lei loudly. He’s a sophomore in high school, and he will eat anything that isn’t nailed down.

I punch him in the arm and carry May over to the kitchen. My mom has pulled out all the stops. All of my favorite foods are there, and I feel even worse.

Jing, my littlest brother, squeezes in ahead of me. I ruffle his hair and pretend to push him back so I can get at the food first. He always finds this game hilarious.

Hector comes up behind me and slaps me on the back. He pretends to steal May’s nose, and she lets out a raucous giggle.

“How’d it go with Brinkmann?” I ask.

“He bought it,” says Hector. “No more slushie suicides for a while, though.”

I let out a sigh of relief. Hector is always covering for me. “Thanks, man.” I lower my voice so my mom can’t hear. “I may need this job for a while.”

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