The Word is Ball

03/12/2010 at 12:56 am (Janet's Prompts)

Following Janet Fitch’s prompt of the week, I’ve written a short story that uses her word choice as an inspirational jumping-off point.  This piece follows my protagonist, Stephen O’Neill, a year before the action of the novel begins.


Only a few months shy of his tenth birthday, Stephen sat alone on the bus, his younger brother Demian helping their mom with chores while he journeyed from his small home in South Berkeley to the cavernous YMCA in Albany.  It was the summer of 1975.  It was basketball signup day, the first year he found himself old enough to join the league.  It was a beautiful day.

The bus shot through the Northbrae Tunnel, curving toward the top of the Solano Avenue hill, as fumes of exhaust evacuated the rear tail pipe like a canister of riot police tear gas lobbed into the center of a UC Berkeley protest.  Stephen could have shaved time off his trip by taking the bus with a direct route along San Pablo Ave., but it was a Saturday, he had twenty-five dollars in his pocket that he’d saved expressly for the Y’s summer fee, and he was in no rush.

There was something different about this day, Stephen had decided when he awoke before six, well rested and alert.  He’d dreamt of himself skinny, as thin and normal as his little brother.  This was the Stephen he was meant to be, a boy who didn’t lumber but leaped, who sped and never stumbled.  He wasn’t that kid yet, he was still chunky and gross and unhappy with how he looked, but he felt all of that could change.

Which is why he’d made the decision to sign-up for the basketball team, why he had dressed himself in the only appropriate clothes he owned: cheap, thin-soled tennis shoes instead of a pair of real running shoes; shorts that showcased his pale, fat legs; and a t-shirt that could barely conceal his flabby torso.

It doesn’t matter, he thought, by the end of the summer I’ll have turned into the kid I was destined to become.  I’ll run hard, I’ll shoot high, and no one will be able to call me Sloppy Stephen or Fat-Ass anymore.

He exited from the back of the bus, noticed the green- and white-striped design of the AC Transit bus stop sign, and leaped toward it.  He threw his whole body into the jump, smacked it like it was a backboard, with enough force to beat a clanging moan out of it, then made his way across the street to the Y.

Inside, he found the basketball court.  The sign-ups had already begun.  Stephen strode in as a bearded man in basketball shorts, his arms and legs as hairy as a wildebeest’s, addressed a small group: nine- and ten-year-old boys beside their enthusiastic parents.

“So it’s really important that you spend time practicing with your kids when they’re not on the court.  It’s vital to them getting better as the season progresses,” the bearded man said.

Stephen didn’t think his mom would spend any time helping him better his game, and Ken, his stepdad, was too busy smoking dope and hanging out with his old college friends to muster up any time or enthusiasm to play ball with him.  He struggled to remain positive, so he assured himself that he could practice and get better without any help from them.

Then he saw Miles, a friend of his from fourth grade who had told him all about the b-ball program and encouraged him to join.  Miles hadn’t seen him yet, and Stephen was about to move farther into the gym and join the small crowd when the bearded man said something that made him reconsider.  It almost made him cry.

“And everybody needs a uniform,” the bearded man held up a purple jersey with “YMCA” on the front and the number “1” on its back.  “You need to purchase one of these with your twenty-five-dollar sign-up fee.  These are twenty dollars and you have to have one of these to join the team.”

Stephen didn’t have another twenty dollars.  It had taken him almost six weeks to save up the twenty-five he did have.  He knew Ken and his mother were broke, that there was no way either of them would just hand him money for something like this.

Miles looked behind him, and Stephen turned around quickly, hoping that he hadn’t been seen.  He quickly ran off the court, his flat shoes scuffing against the floor and making an unearthly, squeaky noise as he bumbled out into the lobby and then back onto Solano Ave.

He was a fat-ass, and he’d always be a fat-ass.  He saw the movie theater across the street and decided to just spend all of his money there.  He would pay for whatever movie was playing, and watch it over and over again until he had to go back home.  He would buy popcorn and Coke and hot dogs and Raisinets and anything else they had under the glass counter until the horrible, wrenching feeling that consumed his entire body stopped aching.



 photo by Philip Kamrass

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