By Pat Jordan
CLAYTON, N.C. -- "He was always a good boy," says his mother. "He stayed home a lot. He'd always come to me. When he got his own place, his dad used to cook for him. He'd come by to get his food. But now he comes less than before."
"I used to cut his hair," says his father. "But not now."
"I knew he'd play baseball some day," his mother says.
"I played catch with him," his father says. "When he was 12, I told him to pitch from a stretch, 'cause there were less mechanics involved. Keep it simple, I said. You can go to a full motion when you've mastered the stretch."
"One local man wanted to buy stock in him when he was in high school," says his mother. "We had a ballpark in the front yard. All the kids came to play. They'd come in the house, watch TV, play video games and drink sodas. Fifteen kids, all the time. Black and white, it didn't matter."
I'm sitting with Ron and Donna Archer at their kitchen table, drinking coffee at 7 a.m. in their tidy, modest home, in a rural area south of Raleigh, N.C. Donna is 63, with blonde hair and blue eyes. She looks like a much younger Cloris Leachman, who played a stoic farmer's wife in The Last Picture Show. Donna is like Leachman's character in that movie, only more voluble.
Ron is 55, with blue eyes, too, and sandy-colored hair flecked with gray. He looks like a much younger Tom Skerritt, the ruggedly handsome character actor. Ron is not so voluble as Donna. He sits at the table, his eyes downcast, nodding as his wife speaks. He's a working man of few words, and even those are said softly, hesitantly. He says he's "semi-retired" from his job as boss of a hardwood flooring crew. His broken arm is in a cast, and he has bad knees from years of kneeling on hardwood floors.
"I couldn't ask anyone to do something I wouldn't do," he says. "Even if I was the boss."
"Our son never caused us a moment's trouble," says Donna.
"When he started to hang out with friends, I told him, 'Be smart,'" says Ron.
Donna laughs. "I told him a whole lot more than that."
"'You are who you hang out with,' I say. "There are consequences,'" Ron says.
Donna looks at Ron with a small smile. "His dad told him that all the time," she says. "I told him, 'Remember where you came from. Remember who you are. Remember what is right.'"
"You play the game within white lines," says Ron, "and it determines how you play outside those lines in life. Be careful."
"Ron was a Navy brat," says Donna. "It was always, Yes, sir. No, sir. He taught Chris manners. He taught Chris how to present himself in the way he wants to be seen." Ron looks down at the table as if embarrassed.
"But we taught him to speak his mind, too," says Ron.
"Ron would whistle for him to come home. If he had to whistle twice, Chris' friends would give him a look, and he'd get home."
"I only popped him a few times in his life. Just with two fingers. The last time I ever did, he looked at me square in the face and said, 'Dad, that didn't hurt.' I said, 'I didn't intend it to hurt, son. But I got your attention.'"
There was a meowing sound coming from the garage. Donna smiles and says, "Feral cats. Animal control was rounding them up, so we adopted as many as we could. We adopted our dog, too. We called him Leftover, 'cause no one wanted him."
"That's how I broke my arm," says Ron. "I tripped over him. He couldn't get up no more, so I had to put him down."
"We adopted Chris when he was two," says Donna. "He lived with us and my daughter, Sonya, from a previous marriage, who was 22. She had blonde hair and blue eyes like me. Chris called her his sister. Chris was never traumatized by the adoption thing. It makes him normal, not different. It defines us and him. When Chris was 11, he put it together that Sonya was not his sister. She had given birth to Chris when she was 20. The father was not in the picture. But Sonya was only interested in what she wanted. When Chris was 2, Sonya wanted to follow some man to Fayetteville. We told her she couldn't take Chris. So she didn't. He was our son now."
"Nobody questioned it," says Ron.
"Oh, we had looks when we went out with Chris. But nobody ever said anything to us. It was never an issue in our house. We did not raise Chris as a little white boy. We did not raise him as a little black boy. We did not raise him as a little biracial boy. We just raised him as a little boy, like we wanted him to be raised. And that's what we did."
* * *
Christopher Alan Archer is the biological son of Sonya Archer, a blue-eyed blonde, and Darryl Magnum, a "tall, athletic, black" firefighter from Raleigh. He's also the maternal grandson of Donna Archer and step-grandson of Ron Archer, who are now, legally and in every other way, Chris Archer's mother and father. Archer is a 6-foot-3, lean-muscled, handsome young man of 25. He has soft brown eyes, close-cropped brown hair, cut in a fade. He is one of the best young pitchers in baseball.
Last season, Archer finished third in AL Rookie of the Year voting, after fashioning a 9-7 record with a 3.22 ERA over half a season with the Tampa Bay Rays. This year, he is expected to take his place in the Rays' awesome rotation. It took Archer seven years in the minor leagues, mostly the low minors, before he reached the major leagues for more than a brief stay. He was 17 when he began his odyssey and 24 when he was called up last season. It was a long, hard, frustrating slog. After three years in the minors, he had won five games and lost 18. The Cleveland Indians, the team that had drafted him in the fifth round in 2006, decided he was expendable and shipped him to the Cubs, who dealt him to the Rays two years later. Some front offices likely were put off by Archer's control problems, but the Rays' interest in him should have tipped off every other major league team. Rays GM Andrew Friedman and manager Joe Maddon are visionaries when it comes to looking at young pitchers, the way Michelangelo looked at that flawed block of marble 600 years ago and saw in it the David. All he had to do was chip away the excess, and David would emerge.
* * *
I met Chris Archer for dinner at the Outback Steakhouse on my first night in North Carolina. He showed up with a handsome black man in his 40s, whom he introduced as "Ron Walker, my mentor." The hostess led us to a booth in the far corner of the room. As we sat down, Archer said, "Wow! This is the same table where I met my father last February." He meant his biological father, Magnum. Walker had helped facilitate that first-ever meeting between father and son. It did not go well. Archer peppered his father with questions. Why had he never tried to contact his son? That sort of thing. Archer did not like the answers.
By the time his father had left, Archer said, he had already decided, "I had no intention of ever seeing him again. The type of person he was. He had three children with three different women. Zero of which he is in their lives. He couldn't tell what school his kids went to. I had no intention of trying to change a grown man who didn't want to be in my life."
I told Archer that I hadn't planned to ask him about his biological parents until tomorrow, after we'd gotten to know each other a bit. He smiled and said, "Yeah, I came out throwin' heat right off the bat."
When the waiter came to take our order, Archer discussed with Walker what he should eat. Walker suggested fish and steamed broccoli, nothing fried or with butter. One night, before Archer was to pitch a minor league game, he had called Walker and told him he was eating a pizza. Walker said, "You're eating what? Don't put that in your body. Spend $30 on something healthy."
Now, at Outback, Archer said, "He didn't want me to put regular gas in my high-performance engine. We talk all the time."
"We always dialogue back and forth," said Walker. "It's a wonderful thing."
"He's like my brother," said Archer.
Walker looked at him sternly and said, "Uncle."
Like Archer, Walker was adopted, at the age of 3. His adoptive parents were the only mother and father he ever knew. His parents are older now, his father retired after 28 years as a petty officer in the Navy, his mother suffering from dementia. (She had already called him three times since we sat down to dinner.) Walker has a 5-year-old daughter whom he named Kristen, after Archer.
"Chris started with no family, and now he has two," said Walker.
After the waiter left, Archer told me essentially the same story his parents had about Sonya. How he'd thought she was his sister. How his parents gave her an ultimatum when she wanted to take Archer to Fayetteville. He said they told Sonya that she wasn't responsible enough to raise a child on her own, that Chris was staying with them. "And that's how I got adopted by Ron and Donna Archer," he said.
Archer didn't realize that Sonya was not his sister until he was 10 or 11 -- "when I started to see color," he said. Archer speaks very slowly, deliberately, when he says something heartfelt -- or something he considers a deep intellectual insight -- as if chipping out his words on the Rosetta Stone. He takes great pains to get right what comes out of his mouth. "I realized I was different from these three people with blonde hair and blue eyes when I got to middle school." His parents never told him he was biracial, he said, "because in their minds no explanation was necessary." In their minds, they were simply his loving parents. What explanation was necessary?
By middle school, he realized that Ron Archer was his step-grandfather, and that there was nothing "Archer" in his blood. But he also realized, he said, "that love is stronger than blood. My dad was the type of guy who woke up at 4 a.m. to go to work. He was the last one to leave, so he could make overtime, to benefit me. I never wanted for anything -- jeans, sweaters, gloves. My mother worked in a car rental agency. My parents worked their ass off for me. That's how Dad got his bad knees, from kneeling on those hardwood floors for years."
Our food came. Walker and I started to eat. Archer didn't. He kept talking about his father. "I wear 'Archer,' on my back every game in baseball," he said. "This white person, who took in an interracial child in the South. I am going to rep that name, Archer, until I die."
Ron Archer hadn't given his son long, verbose monologues on the meaning of life. His style was minimalist. A look. A smile. A frown. A few words. Keep it simple. Be careful. Be smart. ("He knew what I meant," Ron Archer would later tell me.)
Chris Archer's mother, however, was more verbal. "She told me that being different was OK," he said. "It helped me evolve into being different in my thoughts. I learned things common in this world are uncommon. Things uncommon, like me, are normal." It didn't hurt that Archer grew up in an "uncommon" neighborhood, which was, first, predominately white, and second, "a neighborhood of outcasts," he said. "A lesbian couple lived across the street. A gay couple lived near them. There was a Mormon couple with six kids. They all loved me. I was like the perfect fit there."
It wasn't until the sixth grade, he said, that he had a "black-white identity crisis. Who am I? What am I? I hung out with black kids. I hung out with white kids. I was the messenger between them. I had to make a choice. So I did. I became the class clown, so I'd make them all laugh, and then they'd like me."
His relationship with black kids in middle school was somewhat jarring for him, for two reasons. He had thought only whites were prejudiced against blacks, but he learned "there were black prejudices against light-skinned black people." Furthermore, he said, he didn't really know how to "be black," because of the way he was raised. "I was never introduced to anyone who was black in my family, until I met my biological father last February."
When Archer was in the eighth grade, Walker discovered him. He was a youth baseball coach, always looking for talent. Although Archer was not a pitcher at the time, Walker immediately saw "that Archer had a great arm," Walker said over dinner. "I asked him, 'Can you pitch?' He said, 'OK.' So I said, 'Then you're gonna be the guy.'"
"I was never 'the guy,'" Archer said. "I thought maybe I'd play football."
"He was a blank slate," said Walker. "But he was curious. I told him he'd have to trust me, and we formed a quick relationship. When I challenged him with his first book to read, he read it and said it was good. So I thought he was teachable."
"I saw Ron as an avenue to learn more about myself," said Archer. "He educated me. He gave me books to read."
* * *
The following morning, I met Archer at his gym, one of those expensive facilities with physical therapy and orthopedics, for famous athletes in training or rehab and for old people dealing with knee replacements. Archer changed into his workout clothes and then lay down on a cot while a trainer stretched his muscles. Once he was loose, Archer went into the gym to long toss with another pitcher, a minor leaguer. I watched them throw.
Archer has a big, slow, deliberate throwing motion. It's technically correct but obviously learned. He had come to pitching late, and it showed in his motion. He seemed to be looking at his body as he threw, as if going through a checklist: pump, raise left leg, extend arm, drive forward. ... Archer throws the same way he talks, each part of his motion separated from the next, making sure he's doing it right -- conscious and labored over, rather than effortless and natural. Still, Archer shows considerable physical talent. He has a perfect pitcher's body, long arms and long legs, and a classic (if studied) overhand fastball motion. His fastball regularly hits 95 mph and occasionally 98, and he has one of the best sliders in the game. He throws it hard, 90 mph, and it breaks sharp and late. In fact, he sometimes has better control of his slider than his fastball. What he doesn't have yet is an established off-speed pitch, a changeup or curveball. He is a Johnny One Note on the mound: hard and harder.
After signing for a $145,000 bonus with the Indians in 2006, Archer struggled with control problems, walking 7.7 batters per nine innings in his debut season. For the first time in his life, he said, he began to doubt himself. "I had great parents who always encouraged me to see myself as something special," he told me. "I felt I was world-class, a special breed in myself. I had supreme confidence until the minors. I began to have doubts. I called Ron Walker and told him maybe I should go into football. He told me he never wanted to hear that from me. He said if I was trying to accomplish something, anything you think outside that will hold you back. He said I was in uncharted waters and had to figure out how long this would take."
It took Archer almost five years before he started to figure out his pitching. He had to lighten up, be less dogmatic, stop trying to throw every fastball by a hitter. "It was a struggle," he said. "I had to learn to understand my body movement. That's why I'm slower in my motion. Being slower helps me command my fastball. I have to be always conscious of my motion. It's one of my stepping stones to success."
Archer posted a 15-3 minor league record the year before he was traded to the Rays, along with a 2.34 ERA, both by far the best numbers of his career. The secret to his turnaround, he told me, was this: "My background prepared me to overcome struggles in baseball and life. Somebody didn't want me, and that prepared me to deal with failure. I came from a different situation than most." He mentioned his Rays teammate Wil Myers, the AL Rookie of the Year at age 21 last season. "I was always the second choice," Archer told me. "Myers came from a wealthy, loving family. He was an All-American. He got a $2 million bonus. After four years, he was a Rookie of the Year. He never failed like me."
Back in high school, when it was touch-and-go whether Archer would be drafted to play baseball, one of his high school coaches told him it would be best for him to go to a Division III college and play football. "It was a lesson for me," Archer said. "I learned not to accept people's reality as my own. They didn't think I'd be drafted. They didn't have my talent and couldn't fathom it." Like most self-educated young men, Archer was locked into his own certitudes. They had gotten him this far, so why look under that rock of the unknown? His quest for knowledge and self-awareness was selective; he wanted to know only what he wanted to know. Is he religious? "My parents never put religion on me. It was a blessing." Is he a Christian? "I can't say." Then, annoyed, he added, "Religion isn't something I want to discuss."
Archer finished his throwing and came over to me. We talked a little about my experiences as a minor league pitcher. I told him he threw nicely, but his motion was too deliberate. If he sped it up just a bit, he would probably add two or three mph to his fastball and slider. He gave me a look and said, "That's your opinion," and walked away.
We left the gym to drive to his house. Archer drives a beautiful Mercedes Benz CLS 63 AMG. Very powerful, very classy, around a six-figure sticker price. His was only slightly used, and he said he paid around $80,000 for it. "It's the only money I spent from my bonus," he said. I asked him if he had bought anything for his parents. He said no. ("We don't expect anything," his mother Donna later told me. "We got our stuff on our own. If we needed it, I'm sure it would be there for us.")
Archer lives in an upper-middle-class neighborhood in Garner, a few miles from Clayton, where he was born and raised. It's a secluded neighborhood of cul-de-sacs, dead ends and then an exit onto a main road. The houses all look the same, small split-levels and ranches, like they were built all at once by a developer. We went in through the garage into a kitchen that looked new. Archer said, "Ron Walker helped me buy this house. It was in foreclosure. Then he helped me restore it. The kitchen is new."
When I asked Walker what he did for a living, back at the Outback, he was vague: "I'm into real estate. Investments."
"Ron and I are looking at some investments we might go into," Archer said. "What investments?" I asked. "I can't say right now," Archer said.
Walker told me that these investments would be in "the futuristic part of Chris' career," when he had "significantly more money to invest. It's Chris' way of giving back to me" -- for Walker's years of mentoring Archer -- "by investing with me."
Archer went into his bedroom to change. His living room was dominated by a huge TV screen on one wall and floor-to-ceiling bookshelves on another. There was a big color photo of Archer in his Rays uniform, throwing up his arms in jubilation after his first major league victory. There were a few handmade Christmas cards around the room from his half-sister, Robyn. Sonya is married again, with two children, Robyn and Dallas, who also are biracial. Robyn's card was inscribed to "The Best Brother Anyone Could Ever Have. I love you with all my heart, Robyn."
The bookshelves were filled with an eclectic mix of books. Thrillers: James Patterson. Sports: Jose Canseco's Vindicated and Dwight Gooden's Heat. Autobiographies, literary fiction and memoirs: Barack Obama's Dreams From My Father, The Jackie Robinson Story, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Most of the books, however, were pop sociology/psychology, self-help tomes by the usual suspects: Malcolm Gladwell, Deepak Chopra, Eckhart Tolle. The Tipping Point, Blink, David and Goliath, The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success, The Power of Now.
Archer said most of the books were ones that Walker had suggested he read. "I made a vow to Ron," Archer said, "that if I went into baseball and didn't go to college, I'd self-educate myself. Ron introduced me to my first own thoughts. He had me learn the Seven Spiritual Laws of Success. It opened my mind to Karma." What is Karma? "What goes around comes around," he said. What were the other Laws? "I don't remember them all," he said. He added that one of his favorite books was Dale Carnegie's How To Win Friends And Influence People. "The title is deceiving," said Archer. "It tells you the importance of being genuine and sincere. People appreciate it, and you appreciate it in yourself when you display these characteristics." I asked him if he ever planned to get a college education. He said, "Only if I need a college degree in my next venture, in life. I think my life experiences are more important than college. At 17, I lived on my own." Then he told me about the time he talked to the Rays' psychologist when he joined the team. "The psychologist told me I sounded like an Ivy Leaguer. He asked what Ivy League school I went to. I said, 'The University of Life.'"
We left the house and got into his car for the drive over to an outdoor car wash. Archer was having his spotless car detailed there. Walker was to meet us there and then drive us around Clayton, eventually taking us to the barbershop in Clayton where Archer was going to get a haircut. Archer smiled at me and said, "Have you ever been to a black barbershop?" I said that actually I had, when I first moved to South Carolina. Archer said, "It's fun. Just like the movie, Barbershop."
I asked him when his father stopped cutting his hair. He said, "In high school. When Ron Walker introduced color into my life. Black heritage, black traditions, stuff like that. I went to black Christmases and Thanksgivings and black family events with him. He introduced me to my black nature. I recognized a part of me that was that. It was when I first discovered being black. I started watching black movies, black TV, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Family Matters. But I didn't do it at home, though. I felt at home with black people now, not to say I didn't feel at home with the white side of my family."
Archer pulled into a paved lot where four black men were detailing cars. He got out, and the owner, a stocky man who looked like he might have been an athlete once, came over to Archer with a big smile. They gave each other an elaborate handshake. Archer introduced me to the owner, and we stood off to the side of the car, talking in the cold, windy, morning sunlight while waiting for Walker. Archer watched the men begin working on his car and said, "This is my thing. I try to give them work." Archer and Walker run local charities, too, nothing really big or too organized. They call it "The Archway Foundation." They hand out 50 turkeys for Thanksgiving to the poor. They have a database of poor families, white and black, who need things -- a bed, chairs, food, whatever. "That's why I want to tell my story," said Archer. "To help people."
Walker pulled up in his SUV. I got in front with him, and Archer got in back with Walker's daughter, Kristen. She has curly blonde hair and blue eyes, and her skin is the color of Archer's. Kristen started talking to Archer, and then the two of them began giggling and laughing. Ron drove through Clayton past Archer's old grammar school, and then toward some railroad tracks. I asked Walker if Archer had any flaws. Walker thought a moment and then said, "He struggled to realize [that] not everyone is trying to maximize themselves like he is."
"Everybody I met in Clayton, except Ron, was limited in their perspective of what they could do for me," Archer said. "But I learned from those negative experiences more than I would from positive ones. But even now, I'm not close to maximizing my potential."
Walker crossed over the railroad tracks, slowing the SUV as we passed a cluster of dilapidated wood shacks. "We're driving through the bad part of town," he said. These homes used to be owned by middle-class black families, but most of them lost their homes to the banks in the recession. "Blacks owned these homes since the beginning of Clayton," said Walker. "Now mostly blacks and Hispanics rent them." He glanced at me. "They were purchased by investors, people in the know on the inside. They bought them to develop them into big projects when the time is right. Only a few people are in the know about this. People you'd be surprised at. Old Clayton money. They're just kinda waiting before they evict the tenants and tear down the shacks."
I asked Walker if he was one of those investors. He said, "No, at the time I was just getting my feet wet in real estate." He smiled. "A rookie."
"Ron," Archer said, "find an ATM. I need to get some money for my haircut." Walker drove toward a shopping center and pulled into a bank parking lot next to an ATM. Archer got his money and then got back into the SUV with a big grin on his face. "I got some interest on my money," he said, as if surprised.
"A penny saved is a penny earned," said Walker.
"I didn't earn it," said Archer. "It was interest on money I had earned."
Walker and Archer got into a good-natured argument about whether interest on money, or money saved on a discounted item, could be called "earned money."
"If you go to pay $250 for a TV," said Walker, "and it's on sale for $200, then you earned $50."
"You saved $50 on the money you earned to buy the TV," said Archer. "But you didn't earn that $50. Money saved is money saved." Walker still disagreed, so Archer said, "Ask Pat, see what he says."
"Money earned is only money you put an effort in to acquire," I said. "Savings interest is not earned through effort."
Archer said, "You're not gonna get it past him."
Walker grinned at me and said, "We do get into these stimulating conversations."
Walker parked the SUV in front of a juice bar, and we all went inside to order smoothies. The white girls behind the counter all fluttered over Archer, their local star. Archer pointed to the smoothie menu on the wall and said, "I'll have that one." It was a "King Archer Smoothie." The girls made his drink while he charmed them, effortlessly. His present girlfriend, he told me, was a few years older than he, and white. One of the smoothie girls said to me, "Oh, isn't Chris wonderful!"
Walker and I sat at a round table while Archer chased Kristen around the store. She hid under a table, giggling, while Archer tried to grab her. He wasn't amusing her so much as he was amusing himself; even as a grown man, there is a kind of innocence in Archer, as there is in his parents, Donna and Ron. Walker looked over and said, "We have so many good times together. I've never known him to do a wrong thing. Maybe doubt himself, when he was first in the minors. He was in uncharted waters, trying to figure things out. When was it gonna be his turn. Other guys were called up. But he was like a baby then, 17."
Kristen came over and said she had to go to the bathroom. Walker took her by the hand toward the bathroom door. Archer sat down at the table, and I asked him about the upcoming season. He said that last year, for the longest time, he felt he was just lucky to be there, and he wondered when they would send him back down to the minors. Then, one game, the veteran first baseman Carlos Peña came over to him in the dugout. "He told me, 'You deserve to be here,'" said Archer. "'Just don't try to do more than you usually do.' That's when I realized I was a world-class athlete, like other big leaguers."
Archer said playing for the Rays worked to his advantage, because most of the players are young, their GM is young, and manager Joe Maddon, even at 60, is young at heart. The team fosters a youthful attitude that the game is meant to be "fun," Archer said. "It trickles down to all the players. All the rookies go through a hazing period. They put us in female costumes and make us walk around cities like Toronto and Chicago." Did he have his dress fitted? "No, they just threw one at me. I had to wear it for five hours on a charter flight." I'd expected Archer to laugh at the question, but he didn't. He didn't seem interested in humor, other than that practiced charm he exhibited with the smoothie girls. He has a kind of tunnel vision, his life focused only on "finding out who I am," he told me.
A pretty girl came into the juice bar. She wore running shorts, and her blonde hair was pulled back in a ponytail. She gave Archer an embarrassed smile. "Hi, Chris," she said, and went to the counter to order her smoothie. Archer leaned closer to me and said, sotto voce, "I dated her until her father found out. It's still a big deal in this town if I date white girls. It's so ingrained in the older ones. I'm more evolved in life than they are. So now I always ask a white girl, 'What will your parents think if you date me?' Most say they don't care. But it takes a toll on them."
I asked him if his mother and father cared if he dated white girls. He laughed at me. "My parents? How could they care?"
* * *
We entered downtown Clayton, a tiny town that has seen better days. The brick storefronts were worn, many of them empty. A sign on a plate glass window announced the "Grand Opening" date of a new restaurant, but the date was eight months ago, and the restaurant had never opened. Walker pulled up in front of the barbershop, Kirby's Precision Cuts, and we went inside. Three of the barbers were just lounging around, while a fourth was cutting the gray hair of a heavy man, whose wife was waiting for him. Everyone greeted Archer with a smile, "Hey, brother," and handshakes. Archer's face lit up in a smile, for the first time in two days. He gestured toward me and said, "I brought you a new client." The barbers looked at me but didn't say anything.
Archer and Walker sat in unoccupied barber chairs and bantered with the barbers. There was a small TV playing reruns of House and a sign that read, "Happy is what you make it." There was a painting on the wall of three men shooting pool: Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King. There was another print of three bums playing poker. One of the bums was barefoot, with the ace of spades between his toes, and he was reaching his foot under the table to his partner, who was trying to lean down unobtrusively to snatch the ace.
Down the hallway, there was a manicurist sitting at a table, waiting for customers. She looked up at me, without interest. Back in the main room, Archer was now getting his hair cut. The heavy man was leaving, leaning on his cane while his wife helped him walk out the door. Once the wife was gone, the barbershop came alive. Gospel music on the radio was turned louder. The barbers and Archer became more boisterous, in that way of men at a private club. A pretty woman walked past the window.
Archer said, "Now a real woman here, we gotta tighten up."
One of the barbers said, "There go my new wife." Everyone laughed.
"Your old wife moved to Puerto Rico," Archer said, with a wink toward me. "She put you outta your misery." Everyone laughed.
The banter went on for a while. I'd heard it all before, in locker rooms, bars, other barbershops, too. But for Archer, it seemed the most exotic thing. He was animated, bantering back and forth, the barbers deferring to him, his barber making a great production of cutting Archer's hair with an electric razor. Every few seconds, the barber would step back to study his work, then trim a bit more, step back, trim, fussing with it for more than an hour until he got the fade just right.
Archer was smiling, energized, as we walked back to Walker's SUV. "That was the longest f---ing haircut I ever witnessed," I said. "Was he charging you by the cut or by the minute?"
Archer just said, "I got the best of both worlds."
Walker drove us back to the car wash and left. Archer paid for the detailing, then he drove me back to my car at his house.
I asked Archer if I could talk to his parents, whom I had not met yet. "Sure," he said, and gave me their telephone number.
We drove in silence for a few minutes. Then Archer said, "I have no interaction with my 'biological parents,' as you call them. I don't call them Mom and Dad. I don't know a whole lot about Sonya. Was she involved with drugs when she had me? I don't know. I see her when I go to Ron and Donna Archer's house sometimes. There's never been an actual effort made. Does she kiss me? No. It's not like that." What was she like? "I don't even want to go there," he said, "out of respect for Sonya's feelings. I told a Tampa reporter once that my [biological] parents' selfishness was the greatest gift they could have given me. I wouldn't be here now without it. I could be in jail. When Sonya read that, she said, 'I wasn't selfish.' I didn't even respond, because she was so not self-aware. She kept saying she wasn't selfish. So finally I told her, 'You did the right thing for me.'"
He turned the corner into his neighborhood and parked in his driveway. We didn't get out of the car right away. Would he ever be open to having a relationship with his biological mother? "You mean, if she accepted me into her life and played more of a role with me? Umm... It might happen. If she made a drastic change, no reason we couldn't have a better relationship. I don't have any grudge against her. There's nothing to forgive. I don't look at it as being rejected, because I was accepted by Ron and Donna Archer. That was the best decision for me my 'biological parents' could have made … What if they did raise me?"
I thanked Archer for his time and got in my car to leave. He called out, "Be careful."
* * *
I ask Ron and Donna Archer if their son has any relationship with his biological mother. Donna says, "Sonya tried to connect with Chris, but he didn't want to connect with her. He won't put himself out there." It's 8 o'clock on the morning I am to drive home from North Carolina. We have been talking for an hour now, and I am ready to leave.
Donna says, "When Southern people leave their child with grandparents, then the grandparents become the child's parents. They make all the decisions. If Sonya's in the same room with us, I'm in charge. He's our son now, and I won't let him be confused."
Ron speaks up: "If you don't like what I'm doing, you'd better keep it to yourself. He's my son now."
I ask Ron how old Chris was when Ron stopped cutting his hair. "Seventeen," he says. I ask if it bothered him. He shakes his head, no. I ask, "Did you cut it in a fade?" Ron says, "No. It was always a military cut."
I click off my tape recorder and put my pen and notebook in my shirt pocket. Donna notices what I'm doing and says, "Can I get you some more coffee?" I tell her, no, thanks, I've had enough. "Oh, have another cup," she says. She doesn't want me to leave. Something's bothering her.
"OK," I say. Ron gets the coffee and pours me another cup.
Donna is silent, looking down at the table. Then she looks up and says, "You didn't ask us enough about Chris' baseball. I was disappointed you asked all these race questions. I don't think Chris is defined by his background. Chris being biracial was never a big thing with us. Now, it's become a big thing."
I tell her I tried to ask Chris baseball questions, but he played me off. All he wanted to talk about was his biracial background.
"Oh, he did?" says Donna. "We know very little about what goes on with him now." I tell her about the car wash and the barbershop, how Chris slipped into different slang, and how Walker was almost always there when I was with Chris. "Being black was never an issue in our house," Donna says. "To be honest, I never knew of him being with very many black people, or that he changed into being black when he wasn't around us. I wouldn't allow him to speak a different dialect in our house. He had to speak like a normal person. That's probably Ron Walker's influence, but it's not something we'd have a problem with. When he chose to explore other things, we explored them right with him."
I told them it was Walker who helped arrange the meeting between Chris and his biological father.
"I didn't know he was interested in finding his father," says Donna.
"I didn't know either," says Ron.
"Chris and Ron Walker did it together?" says Donna. "I guess he feels he can tell Ron Walker more than us. He didn't approach his dad about meeting his father, because he was afraid it would hurt his feelings."
"I woulda helped him any way I can," says Ron.
There is an awkward pause. I break the silence with a question. "Why didn't you ever explain to Chris about his biracial background when he was younger?"
Donna says, "When Chris was a little boy, we consulted a child psychologist. He said not to burden Chris with explanations about his background. It might confuse him. He said, wait until Chris begins to ask questions, and then explain … but Chris never did ask us."
I get up to leave. Ron and Donna are quiet now. They walk me to the front door. I thank them for their time and go outside to my car. I get in, lower the window to wave good-bye. Ron and Donna are side-by-side in the doorway. Ron's arm is thrown around Donna's shoulders. I wave. They wave back.
I hear Ron's voice call out to me, "Be careful!"
* * *
Pat Jordan is a freelance writer living in Abbeville, S.C. He is the author of A False Spring and 10 other books, and has written for The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, Harper's, Sports Illustrated, Playboy, GQ, Rolling Stone, Men's Journal and many others.