Sunday, June 26, 2016

At the Park

The park was dead in winter, when I returned home for Christmas, and killed a quiet, lonely evening, driving past old haunts. The house where my grandmother used to live. The old school. The shopping mall. The park.

Always the park.

It’s not the first time I’ve seen it in winter. In my youth, Mike and I took any number of ill-advised trips there. On unseasonably warm days, when the temperatures climbed into the forties, and we checked to see if the snow had melted from the basketball court (it hadn't). The visits when we would shoot hoops anyway, desperately chasing errant shots off the rim in hopes of catching it before it landed in the slush that lined the perimeter of the court, that threatened to make winter basketball even worse. We played until our hands were red and numb, beneath the usual speckled layers of black filth that came with street ball.

But rarely had we ventured to the park in December, a time too early in the winter to really pine for the outdoors just yet, and a time when we were distracted enough by the winter holidays not to feel a need to brave the elements.

I walked across the basketball court from beneath one hoop to the other. On of them crooked, tilted ten degrees, far enough to throw off inexperienced players. I walked past enclaves and bumps in the pavement. All of these details that kept it from resembling a regulation basketball court. The details that made it mine. That made me feel more at home there any hardwood gymnasium floor, and that made me competitive--better, even--than visitors to my home court. I read basketball memoirs and articles from the newspaper, and learned about the Celtics’ infamous Parquet Floor with its dead spots, nooks, and crannies, and fancied this court my own imperfect kingdom.

Throughout my high school years I wasted what easily could have been hundreds of spring, summer, and fall afternoons there. Mike and I went to the park when he started to feel the itch of wanting to get away from hoop in his driveway, where his parents could watch lovingly from the kitchen window. Sometimes we shot around on our own. Other times, we met neighborhood kids there and engaged in games of two-on-two, three-on-three, every-man-for-himself “Twenty-One” or “Rock.”

And I shot alone. An escape from the house. From homework. From my budding obsession with writing. I practiced free throws and imagined some aging expert watching me ,respecting my work ethic, and offering to take me under my wing as though I were Daniel LaRusso to his Mr. Miyagi. Or, in my fanciest flights, that an undercover NBA scout who scoured municipal courts might stumble upon me, and recognize some appreciable talent and whisk me away to fame and fortune.

Some of these fantasies translated themselves to my writing. I had, by middle school, started carrying a smushed wad of three or four folded up sheets of paper in my pocket at all times, and a ballpoint pen. After I had played for an hour or two, it wasn’t unusual for me to retreat to the pavilion, across the lawn where other guys played football or kicked around a soccer ball every now and again. I would sit in the shade and write a page or two. Of my basketball novel. Of short stories. Of poetry.

This was the same pavilion where my parents had hosted one of my teenage birthday parties and a de facto graduation party, after my father won a six-foot sub on a radio call-in contest and decided that offering it up to group of teenage boys would be the most efficient way of disposing of it. The pavilion that hosted live polka bands in the summer. The pavilion where a friend and I had disposed of nudy magazines we bartered for school, after we got cold feet about getting caught and decided to get rid of them.

In December, the pavilion remained open, but the scattered dozen picnic tables were all covered in blue plastic--meager protection against winter winds and snow drifts.

I retraced my steps across the snow, fortunate to have found a path without any hidden ice or puddles beneath it. Back to the court where I remembered George. He was ten years younger than me lived in a house just off the park. He would keep me company shooting hoops. A few times, I tried to teach him to shoot, and tried to ask him about his school life, fancying myself a big brother figure. More often than he succumbed to my lessons, he would steal the ball after I had bounce passed it to him, and run away, forcing me to chase him in a makeshift game of tag, dragging me down to his maturity level, rather than letting me bask in my age and experience.

On other occasions, when Mike was around, too, we would tell George raunchy jokes. Curse around him. Never pick on him per se, but just as purposefully talk over his head as we kept the ball in the air above his head and away from him. One time, after we had been particularly foul in concocting hybrid profanities, George went back to his house, and his father came out to talk to us. Scraggly beard, potbelly, gap-toothed, and speaking in a slow drawl that sounded vaguely southern. “You know, boys, kids George’s age can be impressive.” We told him we understood, and apologized, and as soon as he was out of earshot, laughed at just how impressive kids could be.

That winter night, I traced my footsteps back across the basketball court and back to the road. I could have walked all the way home, not more than ten minutes away. But I had my car there by the curb. One last look, and I was back on the road.

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