Here, in all its glory, is chapter 6. The plot begins to thicken here.
The next day is another fine, sunny, autumn afternoon. I have been hearing the playground sounds of the schoolchildren every day for a week or two now, so I am sure it is September, perhaps the finest, most comfortable month of the year in this State. As the shadows again start to lengthen I am surprised myself at how anxious I am for the kid to come back. And with no way to measure the minutes and hours, waiting seems unending and I am more than once ready to give up hope and convinced that the afternoon is farther gone than it really is and that there is no chance the kid will be back today and, given how little I know about how things work here, whether I will ever actually see him again.
Today I am so attuned to his arrival that I pick up the sound of the dribbled ball slapping against the pavement before he rounds the corner of the schoolhouse. I am surprised at how that sound lifts my spirit. I am literally on the edge of my seat. As if I were scouting next week’s opponent I am digging in and looking for every hint and clue. I could not be happier if the Celtics and Lakers were getting ready to play right here before me.
It is all as before for some time. The same wasted shooting from the spot at 18-20 feet, the same countdowns. I ignore the monotonous shooting as it is nothing but frustration to me now and instead focus on the kid’s appearance – his body and face. He is about 5’11”- tall enough to give high-school ball a try, but not tall enough to have any sort of advantage. He is skinnier in the upper body than today’s players – even those of his age – normally are, given the new emphasis on strength and all of the training tools and supplements available. But his legs are pretty sturdy. I don’t think I know him, but I allow myself to think that there is even something about his visage that suggests the early days.
Early in my career, before there were so many other options for the kids, I would get at least ten new guys just like this one in tryouts every October.
My heightened interest in the afternoon was beginning to fade, me being almost convinced that there would be nothing new today, when we got company.
I did not see her at first. She was apparently walking from the playground behind me, but he saw her and called her name and when she looked his way, he went to the trick shot again, but with more energy now; more elevation in the jump shot. He dropped the countdown. I saw her when she came walking onto the court. She stood under the backboard, just beside my bench. I could have touched her, if I could have touched. I remembered the girl. That’s what she was, a girl. There were girls in high school in those days. She was one you could not forget. Sally Hawley.
She was not there long. And the conversation was brief and halting, but these kids were interested in each other. She called him by name. Danny. Some memory of him flashed through my mind then. Neither seemed to understand just how interested the other was, but it was easy for me to see – the circling, the posturing, the choice of words. I was amused and, being invisible to them, did not have to hide my smile. But the thing I could no longer hide from myself was the fact that I did know this kid. I had a bit of a history with him.
She left with the understanding that he would be calling her that evening to go over their math assignment. They both took pains to make the arrangement appear matter of fact, as if it had been a routine they had gone through for years. But when she left, he, Danny – Danny Kelso, sophomore 1966, the last kid I cut from my first high-school team – was a changed creature. He took the ball in hand, time after time, and charged the basket, attempting to dunk. He was tireless. It was like someone had put in a new battery – a higher voltage cell or something. I thought he would give out sooner than he did, but he kept on longer than usual. Just before leaving, he sat for a while on the court in silence and then he picked up the ball and ran on just the perfect line to catch the lowest edge of that crooked rim and leaped with a grunt and stuffed the ball into the basket. Barely.
But you would have to say it was a dunk. When he came down he bounced up and down on his toes, literally jumping for joy, and then took the ball and began dibbling up and down the court, crossing over now and then, as if evading defenders at every turn.
It was then late afternoon and the first breeze of autumn had started to rustle the still-green branches of the oaks lining the creek below the schoolyard and the kid started off the court the same way he always left. As he dribbled off he was facing the windows of the school and he must have seen something in the reflection, something that he had not seen before, and then he turned back toward me in an unfocused, wondering way and then looked at me. At me. And he said to me
“Hey, how are you doing?”
He is speaking to me and the realization that my confinement has been somehow relaxed is at first an electric, physical shock to me. This re-entry into life, however limited it might be, is an almost overwhelming joy. For some reason and at least to some degree I have slipped my chains and for a moment I am like a child released from some interminable lesson and into the bright morning, into the blue and gold, outside the classroom window. Then, in the blink of an eye, my elation takes on new dimension, elevated not by new freedom, but by new hope. I think that if I can be seen and heard I may have influence and I may at last operate on the world around me and break this repeating cycle and find my way.
I pull myself out of this rapture, knowing that I must respond immediately and soberly, in a way that will not scare the boy.
I said that I was fine and quickly added (I did not know how long this window would be open) that I had enjoyed watching him shoot and that I thought I could help him out with some things if he was ever back this way.
“I’ll be back here tomorrow. Same time.” He said. “How long have you been sitting there?”
“Just got here.” True, in a way. “Just got here a few minutes ago,”
“You see that dunk?”
“That’s my first one.” He grins.
“It’s a start.”
I consider mentioning to him that the angle of the court surface together with the downward slant of that edge of the rim probably took almost a foot off of regulation, but I don’t. I have an idea about this kid now, and I don’t want to get off on the wrong foot with him. I watch him disappear around the corner of the school building and sit listening to the wind in the trees and watching the evening come on. I know that Sparks and Murphy will show up soon, but I don’t dread it this time.
This evening I will watch with hope.