Against the Sky
Excerpted from Playing Without the Ball by Rich Wallace Copyright © 2002 by Rich Wallace. Excerpted by permission of Laurel Leaf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
The wind catches you by surprise when you turn the corner onto Main Street in Sturbridge, Pennsylvania. It's brisker than you expect, and in your face if you turn off a half-deserted side street and head up toward the post office or Rite-Aid or the Turkey Hill convenience store. Especially in late autumn.
It's the week before Halloween, getting dark in a hurry, so Rite-Aid is busy with people picking up giant bags of miniature candy bars and little kids scoping out masks and plastic jack-o'-lanterns. The rest of the stores are mostly closed for the night, but the pizza place is busy and the music store is hanging on for another hour or so. Nobody's in there except the clerk guy with long stringy hair, reading a magazine behind the counter. You can get used CDs for five bucks.
The diner's open across the street, but on this side the gun shop is closed, and Sid's clothing store just shut its lights a couple of seconds ago.
I turn into the alley between Shorty's Bar and Foley's Pizza. The alley is just barely wide enough for Shorty's twenty-year-old blue pickup, but you can squeeze past it if you have reason to take a shortcut over to Church Street. You go around back to reach the steps up to the apartments.
There are four doors up here. The one marked number 3 is mine, just a room with bare walls and a scuffed hardwood floor. The bathroom is painted mint green and has a stand-up shower stall and an oval mirror above the sink.
I sleep on a mattress in the corner; I can't afford a bed yet. I've got a closet, but I also hang clothes on my chair, especially wet stuff like my basketball shorts.
I get free rent. Not exactly free--I work it off in Shorty's kitchen three or four nights a week. The deal includes meals during work hours and five dollars an hour off the books.
When I moved into this place in September, I was seventeen. I'd never had sex, never used drugs, never forgiven
my mother, never been to church, and never been a basketball star.
I guess that's all still true.
I played like hell last night--telegraphing my passes, missing layups. That's the sort of thing that eats at me until I get a chance to redeem myself. I heard there's a 6 a.m. game on Tuesdays at the Y, so I set my alarm for 5:30 and stumbled out the door.
Six older guys and a girl about my age--I don't know her; she's new in town--are shooting around when I get there.
"You in?" a tall, bald, old-as-my-father guy asks me.
"You, me, and these two," he says, pointing to my teammates. "Cover my daughter."
I smile a little. She's dribbling the ball at the top of the key. I've seen her around school. Cute. An inch or so taller than me, short blond hair. "Hi," she says.
She passes the ball in and I turn to double up on the pivot guy. Dana cuts to the hoop on a give-and-go, takes a little flip pass, and lays it off the backboard and in.
I play back this time, guarding against the inside pass. She dribbles once, sets up from fifteen feet and shoots, hitting nothing but net.
I blush a little. "I ain't awake yet," I say.
"Right," she answers, looking me straight in the eyes.
I guard her tighter now, trying not to hack her. She's very quick. Very agile and sleek.
She drifts into the key, thinking she can post up on me, but one of her teammates has dribbled into the corner. He's trapped--double-teamed--with his back to the basket, but he's still trying to dribble his way out.
"Oh, dear," she mutters, close enough to my face that I smell peppermint. She gives me a kind of smirk, a half-look that elevates me. "Dribbling is bad," she says.
"Tell me about it."
The ball goes out of bounds. It's ours.
I stay inside. The ball comes to me. I try to back her toward the basket. She plays me tight; front of her thighs against the back of mine. I give a head fake and drive. She gets a hand on the ball, affecting my dribble, but I recover, spin, and lay it over her outstretched hand. It scores.
Listen to this dream I was having when my alarm went off this morning.
I'm at the diner and I'm finishing my third consecutive meal. All of them were chicken dishes; the first two were the same, the third somewhat different. I can't recall the exact meals, but the chicken seemed to be fried and had thick gravy on it. I kept ordering dinners because I was hoping the waitress I had would go on a break and the more enticing new one would take over. But that didn't happen. Plus, I was very hungry.
Eventually I got up to pay, timing it so the preferred waitress would be at the register. I remember saying to her that I'd made a pig of myself.
I paid with a twenty, and I needed two more dollars. I started digging in my wallet but I couldn't find any singles, even though I knew they were in there. There was an elderly guy on line behind me, and he said he'd give me the money. I said no, I have it, but thanks anyway. Then I managed to spill everything in my wallet (in fact, far more stuff than I possibly could have carried in my wallet--my report card, a couple of golf balls, the lyric sheet from an Allman Brothers CD, a naked G.I. Joe doll, and a thousand pennies) all over the counter and the floor. As I was picking it up, the waitress who had served me came over and punched me on the shoulder and said, "Nice going, Jay, that guy behind you just died." I stood up, kind of stunned, and she looked at me in disbelief and said, "Help him!"
Well, the guy hadn't died, but he was shriveled up and could barely talk, and he said he'd had a heart attack. The nicer waitress was propping him up. I said, "I'll get some ice." [Note: This would have been a useless gesture.]
So I ran into the kitchen, gathered up a huge batch of ice, and then (holding the armload of ice) started trying to open cabinets and drawers to find a plastic bag to put it in.
That's when my alarm went off.
Game point, 6-6. She sets a screen at the foul line, and I'm not sure of the protocol for fighting through an opposite-gender pick.
"Come on," she says softly, "use it." But the guy dribbles toward the corner again. Same guy, same corner. This time he's open.
"That's you," she says, still whispering, like she's announcing the game to herself. "Oh, dear," she says as he halts his dribble and starts looking around. "Gotta shoot that."
Instead the guy tries to force a pass back to her, but it's way too high. She gets a hand on it, but no way she can recover. I grab the ball, step behind the arc, and shoot.
"Shit," I hear her say as it goes in.
From the Paperback edition.