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When she finally sees him it is playing basketball, emerging from a twisted knot of wheels. He dribbles the ball, then switches it across his lap to his right hand. He shoots and the act reveals a dimple of muscle in his shoulder, a thatch of black hair under his arm. Expectation lingers on his face, fingers frozen and splayed in front of his chest. All of it is gone in an instant as his arms pump furiously on the rails of his wheels, wide back leaning forward in a crescent.
It is clear he is the best player on the floor. He glides around the knot of clanging wheel rails. His team has a huge lead. He takes most of their shots and dribbles the ball upcourt every time. His teammates defer to him. He barely smiles when they win and rolls to the far corner of the bleachers to pick up a hand towel and drape it around his neck. He follows his teammates through a doorway and she wonders where they have gone.
The humidity of the action is exhaled from the gym when he returns from the locker room. No one remains except the girl and her grandmother standing next to the bleachers. He wheels past them even as the grandmother asks him to stop. Her face is forbidding and he thinks something is wrong.
She wears an ankle-length, floral dress that matches the pink of her cheeks and hugs a primly folded white sweater, tucked over her forearm. She addresses him with the upraised jawline and clear enunciation of the self-esteemed. Her stern posture and direct tone account for his inattention to the girl, who stares at him with efficient, dark eyes. Her hair is obediently combed, leaving a part lightning rod bright and just to the left of centre.
He is made diffident by their attention. He sits prickly with sweat in his gel seat. Circling among his thoughts is the chance that his bowels will release. He stares at the catheter tube peeking beneath his shorts, at his dowel-thin knees, pale and hairless, until the girl interrupts her grandmother as she describes her impression of watching him play.
“Mr. Foss,” she says. “Have you ever coached?”
Absent from the social template he inherited is the capacity to derive pleasure from success. His time on the basketball court can be parsed into joking, sweat, and relief. He was a young, married Air Force pilot stationed in Arkansas when the accident happened and he was wizened and divorced when he finished physical therapy. His afflictions include a lack of bowel control and limited sensation during intercourse. He never decided to give up women or friends, but the course of the last five years suggest that he did.
He was 29 when he discovered his facility for the language and 31 when he finished and threw away his first novel. The second one sat hopefully on the desk of his agent friend, and then several agent non-friends and a proofreader who lacked the mettle to return his calls. His book of poems was published with little attention.
He writes about the losses of the ardent-hearted because it’s the only thing worth writing about. He has yet to write about himself and doubts he ever will.
The girl is awestruck upon seeing him, by his agility on the court, by his withered legs and yellowed, callused hands. And so, imperceptible to her is the clammy-palmed flattening of her skirt and the nervous tucking of her hair behind her ears. Her grandmother talks to him of her high regard for his achievements while the girl watches the curl of his fingers around the rail of each wheel.
His old jersey hangs next to the volleyball banners behind one basket in her tiny high school gym. She knew of his poetry before she knew the jersey belonged to him. She has read his book three times and the poems he has published in countless journals. The recollection of his words strung together comes to her like a finger that keeps tapping her on the shoulder.
When her grandmother introduces her as Karen, he extends his hand upward to meet hers. She is stunned by the gesture, for she feels she already knows him intimately and only now realises that to him she is nobody.
They consummate the arrangements before he thinks to protest. He is not optimistic about her chances for improvement. He can imagine her game by looking at her. No shot, two or three back-to-the-basket moves, probably the only girl on her private school team tall enough to play the post so they have to run plays for her. Her downy soft hips and dimpled elbows suggest she has done no conditioning since the season ended.
Their first meeting is at the beach, two sand-crusted blocks from her house. He arrives a half-hour early and stares at the ocean, the horizon ruler straight. The vastness of it. The ocean sound surrounds him. He takes three steps into the sand, his crutches sinking. He can’t go any further. He sees her trudging through the reedy sand between a break in the ashen slat fence, smiling and waving. He doesn’t wave back. Her grandmother goosesteps behind her, folding chair and paperback tucked under her arm.
He points to the pier in the distance with a crutch and tells her to run to it and back. She lopes away and returns 35 minutes later, waddling and drenched. She bends and tugs her basketball shorts at the knees. Her left shoulder is sandy and he hears her thin wheezing. He tells her to run to the pier and back every morning before it gets hot, and he’ll know the difference if she misses one.
“When are we going to the gym?” she asks.
“I’ll let you know.”
She’s certain he’ll stop coaching her after he sees her run. She runs with her open palms face down and tucked under her armpits. It is the choppy stride of a little girl on a blacktop playground. Coach Harris never made her run. They never did anything but scrimmage and play jailbreak.
She runs religiously each morning. It never gets easier. There’s no good spot to run on the beach. The sand is all either too soft or too hard. Some days she sees him and others she doesn’t. She scans the edge of the strand beneath the houses, aware he can’t walk in the sand. On the eighth day she sees him while she is stretching. He asks how she’s doing.
She doesn’t answer. Instead, she thinks of Spanish class, of how there are two different forms of the word “you”, and how you never knew what someone meant. Someone could just walk up to you and say the word you, and there it would be. You. She says the word over and over in her head while running, repeating it the way Coach Foss said it.
She runs every day at the beach for two weeks before he’ll let her in a gym. Her grandmother is clearly pleased by the change of scenery when he finally relents. She sits with the same erect posture, reading a paperback in the bleachers.
It is immediately clear she is a terrible runner on any surface. He has her run suicides, slapping her hand to the ground and pivoting oafishly, squeaking shoes piercing the stale gym air. He times her. The stopwatch is on a lanyard around his neck. He doesn’t bother after the second day.
He gives her an eight-pound medicine ball that she shoots like a grade schooler, heaving it up to the rim. Her legs scissor when she jumps and her fingers on both hands are splayed. He’s not completely sure she’s right-handed. When he tells her to tuck her elbow in she can’t, and then she does it too far.
He wheels over to her and stands upright behind her, wobbling slightly and holding her triceps still. She squeals and clenches.
He wavers. His limited hamstrings allow him to adjust forward, but he does too far, leaning into her. She turns and grabs him, leaving them nose to nose. He looks instead at her taut neck muscle. She clutches his forearms and he pulls away.
As they are leaving she asks him if there is anything else she should be doing to improve.
“Yeah, cut your hair.”
She grabs her ponytail at her shoulder with two hands, her face twisted in a sour knot.
“Don’t look at me like that. There’s never been a good basketball player with long hair.”
She takes the car and drives to see him play. She tells her grandmother she’s going to Mary Hartney’s house. She wears a straw hat and sunglasses that make her look sophisticated in her bedroom mirror, but now they are way too conspicuous. She sits beneath one of the baskets but off to the side, away from family and friends gathered near the benches. She can’t take the hat off now, because then she would be some girl sitting next to a straw hat.
On the court he commands the game as he did before. She watches his rapid hands guiding his wheels, whizzing around traffic. At one point he chases down a loose ball by rolling alongside it and pinning it to his wheel, where the momentum of his spinning wheel makes the ball pop into his lap.
He plays with a floaty, peaceful look that nobody else has. Everyone else seems to be engaged in combat. One man tips over backward, landing on his back. He seems like a turtle turned upside down. Nobody helps him and he slowly pulls himself onto his chair. It makes her sad.
She watches his face until it seems far away, like staring at him through a window. By the time the game ends it’s like she’s not even there, and she slips out the front door before anyone thinks to leave.
That night he is alone staring into the open mouth of his laptop when suddenly he slams it shut. Dammit all, he says. And damn her, her entitlement, everything. He’s going to tell the old lady he can’t coach her any more. She’s beyond coaching. She’ll never be any good anyway. He is wasting their time by giving the impression anything else can happen. And what was with that hat?
When he calls the grandmother doesn’t answer. He picks up the phone again a half hour later, this time thinking of the girl, of the sunken-jawed shock she would have. He replaces the receiver and re-opens the laptop.
Writing is harder than it should be. Despite his years as a productive writer, he is still intimidated by the wordless part of the screen staring at him. The list of things he can’t write about is immense and growing: basketball, love, himself. It overshadows the things he can write about, forcing him to click over to Solitaire against his will.
He plays Solitaire with gusto, reliving the losses and relishing the wins. He goes on mindless losing streaks, game after unwinnable game. But then he also goes on winning streaks where he exhibits a patience and intuition for the game, like he and it are on the same plane.
He clicks back to a poem he is writing. He has written it several times without finishing. It is about a boy who can’t swim but who can swim. He swims back and forth in the shallow end of a pool without touching the bottom, but he believes he doesn’t know how to swim and never ventures to the deep end. The boy’s friends understand. They help him by playing Marco Polo in the shallow end of the pool only and staying out the deep end. Occasionally, one of them tells him he can swim and he denies it.
He doesn’t know how to finish this poem and is tired of staring at it. He decides to never play Solitaire again.
When he sees her the next day she is trailed by her father, appearing from behind the bleachers as she walks toward him beneath the basket.
“Julia is sick. I thought I would join you all today.”
His name is Pete Hrutkay and he is a commercial real estate developer. He maintains the distant affection with which he treated her as a toddler. He is stocky and gel-haired, with pinched features that make him look pensive. He is born-there Czech, which Coach Foss believes accounts for every aspect of his appearance. Karen has boasted that he is self-made wealthy, and he knows he has awakened in her this capacity for boastfulness.
“Karen seems to be coming along fairly well.”
“Well, if I can help, let me know. I was a pretty good player in my day.”
He pushes her harder because her father’s there, forcing her to shoot the medicine ball from 15 feet, sprint to the opposite baseline, catch a pass, and repeat. Pete steps to the corner of the gym to take a call, resting a hand on his belt where his polo shirt is tucked into his khakis.
He thinks maybe she has gotten quicker. He decides they’ll use a regulation ball at the next practice. Then he realises her hair is cut short, dangling in a C behind her ear.
She lays stomach-down on her bed, reading her Sociology textbook when her father enters her room. Her ankles criss-cross above her knees. Face up on her computer desk sits a tattered and dog-eared copy of Coach Foss’s book. It is facing him standing in the doorway, open to a poem entitled The Humbled Effete.
“You getting along pretty well with Coach Foss?”
“He’s pretty tough on you.”
“I mean, he’s just getting me ready for practice.”
“Well, if you get tired of working with him, let me know, okay?”
Her father glares at the book and picks it up. She watches him. His eyes hover over the spine of the book, devouring the words. Then he puts it down. She tells Coach Foss about this at the gym two days later when he asks where her father is.
“Jesus, I hate that poem.”
“I know what effete means. So does my Dad. He was an English major in college.”
She just finished 10 warm-up laps. Sweat glazes her forehead and neck. He has a regulation ball in his lap and sits at the foul line. His grip on the ball slackens.
“It means exhausted.”
“It also means sterile.”
“You’re saying your Dad thinks I’m sterile.”
“That’s what he read.”
“Well, I’m not.”
“How would you know?”
“Oh my gosh, Richard. I’ve read your work, remember?”
He re-grips the ball.
“And this is why nobody’s here to watch you.”
“All right.” He throws her the ball and she catches it without flinching. He turns and wheels to the baseline. He turns around to see that she’s still staring at him, the same dark eyes. “Just start shooting.”
He is merging onto the highway from the beach when he thinks of that poem, of how he hated writing it. The work of it held him hostage at his laptop for two weeks. He thinks of her reading his book and realises he is at once flattered by the thought and fearful of her opinion.
It’s clear after four weeks that she has lost 15 pounds. She has a long, slender neck and high cheek bones. Agility drills are in order, and he brings the cones to practice. It’s also clear that she has been shooting on her own. From nowhere she has a repeatable motion, with her elbow locked and good rotation on the ball. Her legs and torso work in concert.
He teaches her a drop-step and an up-and-under. Mastering two moves is all she’ll need in her tiny private school league if she can make half of her shots from 15 feet. The thought of her improvement buoys him on his drive home. She might actually be good.
At home he thinks about giving her footwork drills. She could be a guard if she were a little quicker. At her height, she would be a mismatch for anyone forced to guard her. He is thinking about this as he stares into his laptop, unable to write and unable to play Solitaire.
He pushes her harder. He gives her stop-and-pop drills to master. She is supposed to work on them on her own. It’s clear that she has, because she has mastered the fluid motion of catching a pass, taking one dribble to the left or right and rising for a shot. She just can’t make the shot.
He passes to her, calls out either left or right, and watches her take a dribble and shoot. He hears the sound of a miss behind him and turns to chase down the rebound. After seven misses in a row, it’s clear she’s not concentrating. He is supposed to be tough with her, to push her to achieve. That’s what good coaches do.
“Dammit, Karen. What is your problem today?”
“I don’t know.”
Her hands are on her hips and she’s staring at the ground. He wheels over to her and it happens fast. She takes his hand to pull him up, and brushes it across her stomach and the curve of her breast. His recollection later, replayed repeatedly in his thoughts, is that it lingered there too long. He shuffles backward and grips her elbow. His grip is too hard but she doesn’t flinch. Her eyes are unwavering, and he sees the purpose in them for the first time.
She tells him after practice that she wants him to come over to her house. She has a surprise for him. He says no but she insists, pleading with him until he makes lame excuses about having basketball practice that are clearly fabricated and he feels guilty about lying.
Their house is a beachy three-story with bright yellow exterior paint built on wood pilings. Giant bay windows tower over the street and a wooden deck girds the entire second story. He slowly climbs the stairs, one metal crutch poke at a time. The front door is open and he steps into the threshold, calling out for Karen and Julia.
It’s clear that the windows are open from a breeze blowing through the room. It blows curtains in at one end of the living room and out at the other end. They are like pale flags, twisting and flapping in the wind against the gleaming white window trim. Just then Karen steps into the room, wearing her new uniform and a warm-up top. The hem of her blue shorts flaps in the wind. Her warm-ups say Falcons in script that jumps blue. She is smiling and staring at him.
“See? Pretty cool, huh?” She twirls and the entire room seems to be moving. She holds her hands out to her sides and curtsies.
“Yeah, cool,” he says.
He hears the whip and snap of the curtains, followed by a slam. Julia has closed the window and the caught wind dies and the curtains die with it. Julia stands with the same erect elegance he has seen before.
“Hello, Mr. Foss,” she says.
She dominates her opening game of the season. Her coach plays her at guard, exactly as he would have done. She is unguardable. It was what he suspected. What he didn’t suspect was that she was a selfless passer, looking for open teammates when the opposing coach starts sending double-teams.
She gets a steal and a breakaway layup at the halftime buzzer, giving her 21 points. The game is a blowout and the tiny private school gym is electric. She runs off the court staring at him the whole way. He sits next to Pete on the metal bleachers, with the gel seat cushion unvelcroed from his chair beneath him. Julia sits opposite Pete.
“This is unbelievable,” says Pete. “Thank you so much, Coach Foss. This is what we always wanted for Karen.”
Richard waves dismissively. “She did the work.”
“At this rate she’ll get a scholarship.”
Julia smiles primly, having just stopped clapping.
Her team goes on to win by 40. He doesn’t know how many points Karen had but it was a lot. He waits outside her tiny locker room alongside assorted parents and friends. He looks completely out of place and nobody talks to him. But he’s accustomed to the space created by sitting while everyone around him stands.
Young girls trickle out of the unmarked blue door and into the crisp night-time air. His hands grip his wheel rails and he sees her. She spots him instantly, like she knew to expect him. She runs to him and bends over, interlocking her wrists around his neck. She smells of juniper and warm milk. She thanks him and thanks him and he hears the sound of her voice, over and over. He still hears it driving home, gravelly and taut in his ear.
He is still thinking about her voice driving to their last one-on-one practice. The season has begun and she’s too busy with team practice and school. This was their arrangement – one-on-ones until the season started. It would be weird to continue. Julia would start to wonder.
They play H-O-R-S-E and she wins each time. It is Sunday and the gym is empty save a couple of teachers who applaud at his makes and ignore hers as they pass by. They walk out the side door and ask her to lock up as they leave.
She asks him about his time as an All-American at the modest high school and about his writing. She asks him about the accident and his ex-wife. She knows there are some things about him she could never know.
His lips tingle when he kisses her in the hallway to the locker room. She holds him upright and he doesn’t need his flimsy hamstrings. She balances him with her arms around his shoulders and his hands nestled in the curve of her hips. The upright world is no longer wobbly.
He pulls away when she slides her fingers into the waistband of his shorts, falling to his chair and rolling backward. She looks at him and smiles.
“It’s all right. I’m old enough.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“It’s fine. Nobody will know.”
He comes to see five out of the next six games. Pete invites him, saying he should enjoy the fruit of his labour. She’s relieved to see him when they come out for warm-ups. They smile and he looks away.
It’s clear after the third game that she’s better than any player they’ll see this year. She’s too fast to be guarded by a big and too big to be guarded by a small. They get off to quick leads that force double-teams, which she always passes out of. He leaves each time surprised by how quickly she’s developed on her own. There’s no doubt she can get a scholarship somewhere.
Her grandmother takes her shopping in the city. “I thought we should get you a present,” she says. “Something pretty.”
She smiles in a strange, stiff way. Her hands grip the steering wheel at ten and two. Karen nods and stares out the window. They’re silent for the entire drive, except for once when her grandmother points out a woman wearing a gaudy fur coat.
At LaPorta’s her grandmother picks out an expensive gold dress appropriate for no occasion Karen can think of. It’s a pretty dress. Karen tries it on and looks in the mirror. The dress makes her look skinny and dazed. She purses her lips and puts her hand on her hip. She turns around but there’s no angle that looks right. She wishes Mary Hartney was there to tell her if the dress looks okay.
“It looks fine to me, but it’s up to you,” her grandmother says. “It’s your present.”
She agrees to get the dress and her grandmother seems pleased. At home she tries it on again and stares at herself in the mirror. Maybe it doesn’t look so bad, she thinks.
She walks downstairs to find her grandmother on the laptop playing Scrabble.
“I’m going to Mary Hartney’s.”
“Dressed like that?”
“No, I’ll change first. Can I take the car then?”
Her grandmother gets up from the table and walks over to her. She flattens the shoulders of Karen’s dress and smiles.
“Sure, honey. Just be nice and tell Mrs. Hartney I said hello. And eat whatever they put in front of you, please.”
She has taken her grandmother’s car and driven to his house. He is surprised to see her standing in his doorway with her ankles crossed and eyebrows raised, awkward and hopeful. She steps inside and is about to speak when he interrupts her.
“We can’t do this.”
She is speechless, standing in his entryway. She glances around and sees his sparse apartment and he says it again.
“What can’t we do?”
“This. You’re too young, and the day-to-day stuff. Seeing someone every day. I can’t do it.”
“What do you mean? We’ve been doing it.”
“I’m not strong enough to be in a relationship.”
“But, Richard. You’re the strongest man I know.”
They talk until she pulls him up and embraces him. He stands facing her, leaning into her with his mouth touching her neck and exhaling. Her hair tickles his forehead and he pulls away, falling back onto his chair. She leans into him and says she loves him. She always has, even before she knew there was a him, there was a hollow place awaiting him. And now here he is in her life. He had to know it would never get better than this in his life. He could wait for her. They could make it work. He had to know that.
He sits silently, listening and watching her. He is mortified by the thought of her in his house. She’s too young and it’s not right. It’s all he can think about until her tears pool and her eyes grow puffy from wiping them. She tells him he has to see it her way, and if he didn’t agree he would never forget it, the sound of the voice of the woman who loved him, the sound of her next to his ear.
She scores 42 in her game the next night at Harbor View. Her grandmother watches, sitting alone and holding an unopened paperback in her lap. She hardly recognises her granddaughter, who is relentless. She plays with her face snarled with torment. Rogue plaits of hair become untangled from her headband and combine with her pink cheeks and gaunt frame to make her look like someone else, a different person. She throws an elbow and gets two technical fouls in the final minute, walking sullenly off the court following her ejection.
They drive home quietly that night, and Karen wishes she was on the bus home with her friends.
He is alone at his laptop staring into his poem about the boy who can’t swim. The Solitaire icon winks at him on the toolbar. He is alone with that familiar feeling of being close to something he wants but not being able to have it. The feeling is a streak that runs through his entire life, like a dike of igneous jabbing through sedimentary rock. It’s what he’s known for. Without asking anyone, friends, his mother, his teammates, anyone, he knows that they associate him with just missing something, with not quite being able to achieve a thing.
The feeling is musty and dun-coloured. It carries a membrane of monotony that settles over everything he sees, so that he can never see anything like it’s the first time, so that there’s nothing in the world he could see as though he’ll never see it again. The world is a place where routine and normal overwhelms everything else. The crisp finish innate to the world of others is rounded and weathered in his, till the stark features of it are replaced with smoothed over surfaces.
This isn’t a story he can write because it’s not a story. It’s a thing. It’s an it. He can’t even see it until he sees the world through someone else’s eyes. Through her eyes, reminding him that there’s a place that exists where your pulse can race and your eyes can water with the novelty of a new feeling. The entire world can be a place where your neck swivels and your eyes dart and you round corners a little tighter, and in the process of doing so you can set aside that hollow place inside and just be. Just be.
He is shooting baskets the next day at the park in the afternoon. The sun is behind him and the wind picks up. He wheels down rebounds and pushes with some effort to return, stopping and holding the ball at his waist. He imagines the straight line between him and the basket. He thinks about the back of the rim, really focuses. He misses again. Five straight misses. He doesn’t have it today, but he can usually turn it around. He holds the ball and grips it in his lap, thinking. He rubs the ball with his thumb. It is gravelly and taut and he thinks of her voice.
He is in the car before he knows what to do. His heart races as he drives to the beach and gets out of the car, crutches clanging on the sand-crusted side of the road before her yellow beach house, where she is staring out the huge bay window. Her face disappears behind the curtains and she is downstairs a moment later with a spasm of hopefulness. Her hands are fists at her side.
Chris Guthrie is a professional writer and editor who lives in Virginia with his wife and two children. His fiction has appeared in Washington Square Review, Amarillo Bay, In Posse Review, and Crazyhorse. He sometimes writes about the losses of the ardent-hearted and sometimes writes about basketball.