by Douglas W. Milliken
The plan had been to spend Friday night at Paulie’s and hang out Saturday then go to Saturday practice together in the afternoon but then that morning Coach called—while we faked not being hungover in the buttery morning-bright kitchen, dopey and grinning while Paulie’s mom attacked us mercilessly with motherfucking pancakes—and said there’d be no practice today. He didn’t explain why. Later we’d learn just how fucked Coach was and how much we were each involved in that fucking, but for now, all we knew was that we had a day off. A pack of dogs set free.
We decided after breakfast to break into Paulie’s brother’s room and eat whatever stash Paulie’s brother’d been saving. Just piled what was there and cut it three ways and gobbled it all down and it was gone. This was Kelly’s first time, but he seemed up for anything. Not like a kid who never gets to hang out, but now is hanging out, so is willing to do anything to impress his new friends. More like the opportunity had just never arisen before. Kelly scooped up all the little reds and yellows and greens and discovered their place inside his body like he’d worked out this puzzle before. He was a natural talent at this game. We wandered out into the winter orchard behind Paulie’s house where a few fat brown apples still clung pointlessly to the trees like the saggy little tits of old maids and spinsters and the sun was so low on the horizon—this time of year it just can’t get high—and then it melted and then it smeared. A glowing yellow wax-stain between the frying-pan clouds and the spikes of distant pines, and our breath hung around us in stupid glowing clouds. The winter apples felt like leather sacks full of sauce. They tasted of booze and sauce. Paulie picked one and threw it against running Kelly’s retreating back where it exploded against his Ray Allen hoodie like a star in slow motion being born, Kelly’s arms flew up like he’d been shot, he’s going down, and I ate another apple off the limb. Teeth tearing the old lady skin. Jacked juice on my chin. Then we marched like soldiers into the wood-lot pine and birch.
Coach always says we lack focus. It’s his primary criticism of our game and selfhood. We dick around so much, he says, that someday someone might dick us right back, hard and up the ass. There’s always the suggestion that that someone will likely be him. But Coach would have had to keep his bitch mouth shut the way we set fire to Paulie’s brother’s shitty little cabin in the woods. There was no dicking around. We barely had to speak to agree: this is what we’re doing. We smashed the kerosene heater with rocks and a log I’d found until the heater puked its fuel all over the grimy pine planks of the floor, soaking into the litter of empty cigarette packs and candy wrappers and torn porno centerfolds. Then Kelly tossed his Parliament Light like a gangster in a Scorsese movie, and the air woofed and we all stepped back and then the flames really went crazy. We stood outside and kind of danced around a bit, waving our arms in the air like we were cheering from the stands, this was the playoffs and it was down to either the cabin or the flames and the cabin had home court advantage but fuck all that, we the flames, bitches! and when Paulie found the old rusted lawnmower half-buried in crusty snow and dead leaves, we chanted “Triple-Double! Triple-Double!” while he somehow hoisted it above his head and tossed it into the blaze.
I guess it goes without saying that Paulie’s brother was a dick.
It was thus that some sort of peace fell upon us. It felt good to’ve done something right. We wandered slow and easy back through the woods, weaving like we were on bicycles and slashing twigs at the deepening air, and when we got back to Paulie’s it was clearly afternoon—the sun still a low horizon smudge but over there now, further away—and we were coming down anyway, so we decided to play some H-O-R-S-E. Paulie’s driveway was deep black asphalt and his step-dad kept it pretty cleanly plowed all winter so the banks along the edges were huge and iced solid into juggernaut mountains, and as we shot and ran and sort of danced like high fey creatures of incredible lightness in our sweatshirts beneath the hoop—sinking impossible shots, blind Hail Marys and left-handed overhead hook bullshit: we could do no wrong—I got a really good idea. Paulie did this silly backward trot to shoot a corner three-pointer and missed for an S and, with the rebound, I scampered with the ball up the snow bank’s slope. I paused up top and calculated my shot. The angle of approach was all bad but the height was a stupid obvious advantage. In the pine-shadow distance, I could see the wind moving across a far off potato desert ribbed in snow, stirring in the furrows. I felt it in my belly and my scrotum and my spine. It was wonderful. I dove from the bank and hovered like ash in an updraft to sink the only dunk of my five-foot-six life, and it was so hot but yeah, my teeth got caught in the net.
I remember hanging there for a second while gravity slowly regained its hold on me, but Paulie and Kelly say it didn’t happen like that at all. They say I just fell and kind of gracelessly at that and there was blood everywhere and my top front teeth were gone. I sat there on my ass on the cold black tar and they rushed around me to see if I was okay but I didn’t give a fuck. I was still on R. Those bitches were about to spell a word. Somehow I had the ball in my hands so I pushed it into Kelly’s.
“Your shot, dude.” I could see my words spray out of me all red.
“Uh, Coleman, shouldn’t we—?”
“Take your shot.”
Neither of them moved. I wanted them up on that bank.
And I loved the way my words looked alive and floating in the air.
Twenty-four seconds on the clock.