The ball is a city when it leaves my hands. Every line and nub a street or a building, a person minding their business. Every bounce, dribble, shot that rattled the rim of the hoop before sliding past net, was a storm for someone. In street ball, the rules rush together. It’s trash talk and pressing against the opponents, back to chest, trying to push towards something like a dance where each partner doesn’t know a melody.
In school, though, the rules are contracts. Coach shakes his head, lets out a sigh, if he sees you disregard something he’d told you. When I tell Marcus that his granny could hustle more than him, Coach shakes his head at me. The ball is just a ball when it leaves my hands, I can’t imagine the space of it as it arcs through the air.
At home, my cousin is still living with us. He’s been out of rehab for weeks, but Mom says he can’t find his footing. His mom was my mom’s sister, I’d call her my aunt but I never met her. Mom says her sister was all rattlesnakes and glitter. My cousin has never heard my Mom say this, but once he and I were playing a videogame and he said that his favorite snake was a rattlesnake pilot.
“Snakes can fly?” I said. And it came out sounding like a joke, and I wish I’d been making one. My cousin laughed. “It’s a kingsnake. They’re harmless but they look a lot like a rattlesnake, sometimes even live with them. Imagine being that snake, just hanging out with all these big badasses, and them all thinking you are, too.”
“I think that’s me on the court,” I said.
The first time I’d held a basketball, I was four, and my Dad had passed it gently to me. In my hands, it was heavy and I dropped it. As it rolled away, I saw people climb up from the lines. They were holding hands and scrambling to get out of the line of the roll. Or so I thought, but when I picked up the ball to stop their tumbles, I saw that they were dancing. One of the people tipped a hat to me as they settled back into their lines.
My Dad was delighted by how I stared at the ball, mouth agape. “You’re gonna be a baller!”
The ball was always just a ball in everyone’s hands, until it was in mine. And then it was a symphony playing from inside its hollow, dancers and people just minding their business too in the hub and bub of the city. I’d seen a man carrying flowers once, a little girl yanking her mother’s hand to steer their walk towards a bakery, a little dog playing fetch with his people in the park. All I saw in the ball was life bustling forward.
My cousin used to make paintings, but I never saw them. He said he painted people and then painted landscapes over them. He said, “I know they’re there and that’s all I need.”
Coach pulls me aside after practice one night and asks how I’m doing. “You’re always so good in practice, man.”
But in games, the ball passed between hands so quickly that I never had enough time with it. There was no moments to just watch the city life unfold. “I’ll work on it, Coach. I promise!”
At home, I practice in the driveway with the regulation hoop Dad had put up when I was in middle school. I shoot fast, barely give myself time to dribble. Just bounce, hit into my palm, and shoot. Bounce, hit, shoot. Every shot sinks. But I don’t feel the rhythm. It’s just a ball and a point.
My cousin watches me from the grass. He sips a bottle of soda. He likes glass bottles, says they feel like home to him. And my Mom shakes her head, sighs, says, “really, now.”
“How am I looking?” I ask him.
“You haven’t missed once, bud.”
At nights, sometimes, I’d hear him from the guest bedroom. Crying so quiet that he must have hid under the covers to muffle the sound. Sometimes in the mornings, when I got up with the sun, for my run, he’d be pacing the kitchen in his socked feet.
“Do you play?” I ask him.
He was five years older than me but my Mom looked at him like he was five years younger. When he was in the hospital, before rehab, she’d held her phone in her hand all day long. She jumped every time it buzzed. She said, “we should have brought him in after Marcia.” And my Dad would shake his head, say, “don’t think in could have’s. He’ll come back to us, now.”
“Not well. Not like you,” he says. “You’re going to be somebody big with those skills.”
When Coach sighs at me, shakes his head, I see the future spooling away from me. No college scholarship, no brightness. If someone read my palms they’d see bruises and calluses from dribbles and slams, and maybe that would obscure all the paths I maybe could take.
“Want to play?” I ask.
My cousin shrugs. He has a long stride, and broad palms. When I pass the ball to him he catches it with ease. He looks down at the ball, studies it with a frown. A flinch, almost.
I wonder if he’ll paint again, if he’ll stay with us until he can, if he’ll find a way to climb out of the lines he’d been set into. He dribbles twice and passes the ball to me.
When I catch it, the surface burns my hands. I look down at the ball and I’m holding the sun. Flaming and orange and brilliant in its burning. My cousin is watching me, and I’ve never noticed how his eyes are always looking at something else and never right ahead, not really.
And though it keeps burning my hands, I keep ahold of the ball, hold it until I can see a city waking up in its sunrise. And I pass the ball back, wonder if he can catch it.
Chloe N. Clark is the author of Collective Gravities, Escaping the Body, the forthcoming Patterns of Orbit, and more. She is co-EIC of Cotton Xenomorph. She's at work on a novel about basketball and her favorite player of all time is Rasheed Wallace.
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