- Published on Tuesday, 15 July 2014 17:38
by Desmond Fuller
The light was almost used up. What remained fell in pale stripes over the basketball courts like a ghost tiger biting the chainlink that bled shadows into the pooling dark.
Bryce spun the basketball, the taut rubber rolling under his fingers as he took a shot; the gasp of the net as it spit the ball back to him. He put new fractures in the quiet with each percussive dribble. He liked when the courts were empty. The passed day lingered in the stillness, recorded in spilled soda, cigarette butts in the fallen elm leaves and lazy hornets circling a discarded Happy-Meal bag.
When the courts were too crowded, he sometimes met up with Pete at the bridge. They would jump the guardrail and skid their way down the incline, grasping at protruding roots and rocks, their shoes pushing up dust. Sometimes they grasped at the loose dirt crumbling between their fingers. They walked the floor of the shady gorge along the train tracks to the school and then home, making dirty jokes and trying to forecast which of them would get laid first. As it was, that was no longer up for debate, and Bryce wasn’t up for fielding Pete’s questions about Michelle.
Blood was hot in his palms. The ball bounced off the backboard and stuttered to a halt near where his jacket lay by the gate. As he stooped to recover the ball, he heard his phone beep in the jacket pocket. He didn’t need to check to know that it was Michelle. They hadn't spoken since she told him about New York.
He took a shot. The ball bounced.
The evening felt indefinite. One could stay out till dawn moving in that darkness. It was hard to convey its impermanence to the blood in his chest and the sweat in his hair as he ran the ball again and again. Tomorrow was vague, out of mind, or maybe was too easily ignored.
He would graduate soon. But it felt abstract, like the paintings they had seen in art class the other day, with the giant animal skulls that loomed over tiny deserts and mountain peaks. Mrs. Sphensen had said the paintings were supposed to convey a sense wonder. Also, that the lady who painted them had suffered a nervous breakdown.
His brother Kris had left for college two years ago and received a three year prison term instead of a diploma. Somewhere in those tiny desert mountains Kris borrowed a stranger’s car and drove it over a fire hydrant. In his letters to Bryce he sometimes worried about getting beat on, but mostly worried that he wouldn’t have a chance against Bryce at one-on-one when he got out. He hoped Bryce was excited about being done with high school.
Bryce hadn't written back.
He sank free throws while across the court in his jacket his phone blinked. For a moment he imagined Michelle in her oversized sunglasses. There was no one's fault in it, he thought. But, he didn’t want to talk. She was leaving in three weeks. It felt done already, more so with every dull thud of the basketball’s ricochet.
He could see her: the way she tore labels off soda bottles, the birthmark on her lower back, her favorite blue sneakers, the first time when he went too fast. He was afraid it had hurt even though she said that it was alright. It surprised him when it was over. He felt a nervous energy like a need to suddenly do fifty push ups before she came back from the bathroom.
He ran the ball halfway down the court, dodging shadow defense, doubling back to the hoop. The ball fell short of the rim. He heard the phone’s muffled beep again. Maybe he hadn’t.
Talking made it real again. He could let his phone beep all night, moving in that first darkness.
Michelle was Pete’s sister’s friend. She had come to a couple of games when he had played for the school team. Afterwards, in the parking lot kids were milling around in waiting for eachother. Pete tried to rally a bunch of them to a night swim on the lake. She had asked Bryce if he would go.
He shrugged. He wasn't a strong swimmer.
Her hair was cut short in the back. The tiny filaments stood out on the back of her neck illuminated in the pale streetlight.
She told him that she had a favorite uncle doing time for insurance fraud. Yes, she answered his letters. She could keep being angry, but she liked writing letters. Did he?
In the end no one went to the lake. A week later he was listening to her moving in the bathroom while he lay in the rumpled sheets next to her imprint.
One day they were waiting for Pete to get back from meeting some guy about getting alcohol. Pete never came around, so they wasted time fighting over the PS2 controller, laughing and having sex. That was when he first noticed her birthmark, like a grapefruit tear sliding along the swell above her right hip.
They lay on their backs while her mom stomped around in the kitchen, yelling at someone on the phone, her shrill voice battling the dissonant choir of the TV. The bedroom walls insulated against the dischord.
Michelle chuckled and said that her mom was kind of crazy.
He shrugged. At least she was around. When he did see his mom, they mostly talked about Kris. She would find the smallest things to bring him up. Bryce didn’t want to talk.
Michelle put her head on his sternum, breathing down an invisible channel to his navel.
She said that everywhere she went, the knot in her stomach pulled her down, that she couldn’t get rid of it. She wanted to go somewhere where there were so many people you could get lost in them and come out someone new. She would leave for a long time and not have to see her drunk dad every weekend. She wished she had a brother.
Bryce said he wished he still had a dad, and then regretted it because then she was crying and saying sorry. She bit him right below his collar bone leaving an archipelago of pink teeth marks. Was his pain more real than hers?
Her tears were cool on his skin. He put his face in her dark hair and was quiet. It was the best smell in the world: shampoo, sweat, her skin, and the undefinable, unique overtone that haunts all lovers.
They stayed like that - entwined and still at the edge of the light trap where the sunshine pressed under the dusty blinds. It moved toward them with the false slowness of certainty. The thin beam cut a line across the floor until the late hour dulled its edge and it disolved into the shadows where they fell asleep without moving.
Bryce took one last shot. The hoop rattled.
He pulled on his coat on and felt the weight of his phone rubbing below his ribs. He took it out. Some things ended themselves: when his dad had fallen down and was still, like part of the ground, the siding of the house and the ladder toppled over on its side.
He clicked to read his texts. Some things didn’t have to end. It had been the best smell in the world. Distance was abstract like giant bones in the desert. Michelle was the sweat on his arms.
There was one text from Mom: Come home now! Kris in pen hospital.
Blood can beat like bombs all around and the ground you are standing on can be like fog.
The lights came on over the empty courts with a stutter and hum. The meandering bugs came to pay homage to the blue-green luminescence. The soft electric light fell on the warm air and everything, keeping its ghost like it would never end.